Tech Focus: Stranger's Wrath and the Rise of the HD Remaster
The varying approaches to high def remakes of classic console games
The release last week of three Splinter Cell HD remasters for PlayStation 3 is just the beginning of a Q4 schedule packed with high definition re-releases of classic console and computer games. Over the course of the following weeks we can expect to see the likes of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Halo CE, Resident Evil, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus returning to our screens, with more - most likely, many more - to come. The question is to what extent are they merely simple ports, and what more can be done to make them into truly special games that really make the most of the original assets?
The quality of these releases varies somewhat, to say the least. The title that really kicked off the HD remastering trend was Sony Santa Monica's God of War Collection - a superb marketing vehicle for God of War III that saw the first two games in the series ported over to PlayStation 3 by conversion-smiths Bluepoint Games - who, incidentally, are also handling the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus work.
In our original God of War Collection Eurogamer article, we compared Bluepoint's work to both the original games and PC emulation and came to the conclusion that while the core assets were essentially left untouched, the games worked owing to the excellence of the original art, along with improved image consistency (v-sync was enabled) and a higher performance level. The original PS2 God of War games aspired to hit 60FPS - the Collection just about got there.
In short, Sony reinvigorated the old games and offered enhancements that made the titles feel fresh, new and desirable. With the purely backwards compatible route unavailable for most PS3 owners, the approach was a masterstroke, and others quickly realised that there was plenty of money - not to mention promotional opportunities - in creating their own HD ports for the current gen consoles.
That's not to say that all of them are successful though: last year's release of Medal of Honor offered up an "HD remaster" of the game that made the series: PS2 classic Frontlines. The only problem was that the game hadn't been remastered at all - it had merely been ported over, run at a higher resolution and that was it. While the God of War games still felt modern and the original art worked in HD, Frontlines didn't - what could have been a nostalgic look at the origins of the series instead served as a brutal reminder in just how far the first person shooter had evolved. Thankfully the game was a bonus to the new Medal of Honor game as opposed to a full release people would have to pay money for, though EA has just released the game solus on PSN for an eye-watering $15.
Ubisoft's Splinter Cell re-releases are intriguing in that they do offer a significantly improved experience over the original consoles games (with 1080p and 3D support to boot) - but they do so simply because of the existing assets available from the PC versions of the three games on offer (Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory). In today's development and publishing environment, it's easy to forget that back in the days of the standard def Xbox and PlayStation 3, PC games were already running in HD, and to get the most out of the advanced graphics hardware, superior assets were required. It's telling that Ubi's promotional screenshots for the new games were actually years-old PC grabs, crudely cropped top and bottom to turn 4:3 screens into widescreen images.
The Splinter Cell HD re-releases exercise those existing assets to create new, "modern" console releases - an extremely canny move from the publisher and one that others are almost certainly likely to follow. Konami, for example, is working on HD remasterings of Silent Hill 2 and its sequel. There are no plans for the original game to get the same treatment mostly likely because there was never a PC version and thus no "HD" assets. However of the three releases, only the most recent Chaos Theory works - artwork and animation in the original Splinter Cell and Pandora Tomorrow don't look so good, and the 1080p modes in those titles merely highlight the deficiencies of the art by present day standards.
There's a third way of course, where budgets permit. Microsoft and 343 Industries are bankrolling an Xbox 360 version of Halo: Combat Evolved, where players can dynamically switch between the original artwork and a brand new engine with state-of-the-art 2011-standard visuals. But even where budgets are limited, some developers are still able to utilise the work done in previous generations to provide a seriously beefed up HD experience: probably the closest thing to an actual "remastering", where the original artwork is repurposed to provide a significantly superior visual look to the original game.
Just Add Water Developments are currently working on an HD version of the Xbox classic Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. A direct port (with Steam Achievements) is already out on PC, but JAW's PlayStation 3 work is remarkable in many ways. Oddworld has handed over everything ever created for use in its games, opening up a range of new opportunities for an improved experience.
"We took delivery of a copy of the Perforce depot they used to create the game in the first place," JAW's Stewart Gilray tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"So everything, every last scrap of code, asset, you name it, it's there. Which was thankful, as their build process relies 100 per cent on Perforce as their custom scripts and tools actually use the Perforce API to do various things whilst the data is being built. Without that we'd have had no chance."
We thought that JAW may actually be running at a disadvantage compared to the Ubisoft team that created the HD reworkings of the Splinter Cell titles. After all, it had PC assets to work with while Stranger's Wrath was only ever released on the Xbox, running at a basic 640x480 resolution. Gilray revealed that the assets Oddworld created actually gave it so much more to work with.
"The first thing we decided to do was update all the character models in the game, some 80-plus in 50 per cent of the cases we had NURB based versions of the models that were used in the cut scenes, so we dropped those down to a level we could use in the game," he explains.
"Those that we didn’t have NURB models, we recreated them using the original Xbox models and the original concept art for reference. Oh yeah, we had all the original concept art too."
The notion of NURBS models is that they are generated from curves rather than polygons. In theory they can scale up massively to provide detailed models well beyond the work that ended up in the final Xbox version of the game. The treasure trove of assets went well beyond model work though, with enough raw material there to radically transform other elements of the game.
"Once we'd settled on that, we decided to completely overhaul the GUI using the original mock-ups we found in Perforce. Then we took to the environments. A lot of the textures in them were 64x64 up to 1024x1024, but things like the detail maps were 128x128, so we added new 512x512 ones, along with replacing ALL the foliage textures with at least double res ones," Gilray continues.
"Once that was done we decided to go through the game and actually update environment meshes. For example, pipes WERE hexagonal, now they’re pretty much round. Some might say we've done a lot more than just make it HD in the usual sense of the phrase."
While the artistic enhancements are obviously very welcome indeed - and above and beyond the usual re-deployment of existing assets, the Stranger's Wrath HD remaster does have some similarities with the standard practise. The game will play like the original as it is effectively running the same code… but even here, Just Add Water has been working like demons on optimisation in order to get the game running well on a completely different hardware architecture.
"Again we've used the original code as we are effectively running the original game, but with massive optimisations and some elements being re-written completely. An example is the particles," Gilray offers.
"The original particle system used 46 per cent of the PS3's PPU. After doing some clever stuff it's now taking two to four per cent - there were a few areas like this that we changed. There's also a system in the game for 'decorators', these being foliage or other painted meshes. The original literally drew each one, one at a time. We've changed this so that they're all batched up and rendered in almost a single pass, vastly reducing the number of separate draws."
The PS3 version follows JAW's work on porting over the existing game onto the PC, where an OpenGL-based renderer was used. Aiding the conversion effort is the use of PSGL, a PlayStation-specific iteration of the API.
"We took our OpenGL version from the PC and went with that, it didn't take that long to get the game running on the PS3," says Gilray.
"Our biggest headache was the data, getting it in the right format. After all, the PC is Little Endian, where PS3 is Big Endian. So we had to do swizzles on every read, but as the game had a lot more than one read/write system we had to go into the engine and do stuff there in there… so doing all that probably took the longest out of all of it. Beyond that it was optimising mainly and for the most part it was just repetitive task rather than a 'oh my god we can’t do this!' type of thing."
The good news for existing owners of the PC release of Stranger's Wrath is that all the enhancements JAW has made for the PS3 version of the game will end up being rolled back into a title update, meaning that the conversion effort for the consoles will result in a free, visually more impressive, optimised experience for the PC too. If the assets available to Just Add Water are as exhaustive for the other Oddworld games as they are for Stranger's Wrath, it will be hugely intriguing to see how the Yorkshire based developer plans to follow up its first console remaster.
While backwards compatibility re-releases have perhaps been seen as a way to effectively make money from old rope, the rise of the HD remaster is a fascinating development that can see classic games reinvigorated for audiences old and new, and needn't break the bank. But at the end of the day, whether the games will be successful or not all comes down to the strengths of the original release: does the gameplay stand up to the exacting standards of 2011, where it's actually rare that we see genuinely bad games? Can the quality of the original artwork stand up to HD rendering? And is the budget - and the will from the developer - there to see that the released product will be the best that it can be?
While 343 Industries and Saber's work on a high budget, full-on remastering of Halo: Combat Evolved will mostly likely gain the most press and has clearly had a lot of time, money and effort put into it, it's Just Add Water's approach that is the most fascinating: there is a certain purity to the whole enterprise that pays the most respect to the original source material. By working with the original concept art and NURBS models, Just Add Water's Stranger's Wrath HD ticks all the boxes we would want from a remaster (full HD with a 60 frames per second target) but at the same time derives its visual boost from all the hard work of the original creators, who retain full sign-off on the final version of the game.
In this sense, Stranger's Wrath HD promises to be what you might call a purist's HD rendition of the original game and perhaps the template for these endeavours going forward: the right choice of game, genuine effort put into the actual "remastering" and comprehensive involvement from the creators and visionaries behind the original game.