"PC version is shaping up to be something special" - Interview with the devs of Splinter Cell Blacklist
PC Games Hardware sat down with Leon O'Reilly, Technical Lead Ubisoft Toronto, and talked about interesting technical details regarding Splinter Cell Blacklist. The improved game engine Lead now has support for DirectX 11 features and Ubisoft has some impressive plans for TXAA and improved HBAO on Nvidia cards.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is developed at Ubisoft Toronto and is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 at the end of Augst.We talked to the Technical Lead at Ubisoft Toronto, Leon O'Reilly, about his work with Nvidia and AMD.
Leon O'Reilly:This is correct, and the key point is that the engine in Splinter Cell Blacklist is "heavily modified". While we leverage the Unreal engine for its great tools and game systems, we did an almost complete overhaul of many of the other core systems, including the renderer.
PCGH: If you're using an updated technology, what have you improved compared to the Engine used in Conviction?
Leon O'Reilly: Gamers will enjoy significant improvements in Splinter Cell Blacklist. For the PC, our big new feature is a complete DX11 rendering engine. This allows our team to add a wealth of great rendering effects like tessellation, parallax mapping, improved ambient occlusion, contact hardening shadows and enhanced anti-aliasing, which make this truly the most impressive Splinter Cell game to date. We're very proud of the new features in Splinter Cell Blacklist, and we can't wait for our fans to get their hands on the game this August.
PCGH: You announced that the game will be developed for PC, Xbox 360. Will the game be a pure cross-platform product or will there be an optimized version for the PC?
Leon O'Reilly: With Splinter Cell Blacklist, we deliver a truly optimized version of the game for the PC. Unlike some other titles where the PC is an afterthought, we have a dedicated PC team embedded in the Toronto studio working on PC specific features and enhancements for the game. We have been working hard to make every aspect of the game run smoothly on PC, from reworking the controls and UI to building a completely new rendering engine for DX11. We have even added new game features specifically for the PC version.
The PC version is shaping up to be something special.
PCGH: Blacklist obviously features a DX11 enabled renderer including Tessellation, an advanced version of Nvidia's Horizon-based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO) and as well as the Nvidia exclusive TXAA? Can you confirm this or add some more information?
Leon O'Reilly: We have built a new DX11 renderer for Splinter Cell Blacklist. One of the big new features that DX11 delivers for gamers is tessellation. This allows our development team to create smoother and more natural looking environments and characters.
Light and shadow are core components at the heart of the design in all Splinter Cell games, so it was critical for us to build a really detailed ambient occlusion system. Just adding one post effect to the scene was never going to give us the results we needed. So we have a base layer of pre-calculated baked AO, which we combine with dynamic field AO that is calculated for objects in every frame. The final cherry on top is the Nvidia Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion which really embeds everything nicely into the scene without the noise you see on some other AO solutions.
PCGH: Are these above mentioned rendering features (DX11 etc.) only applied in case of the PC version or - if planned - in the Playstation 4 and Xbox One version, too?
Leon O'Reilly: PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are really exciting pieces of hardware, but we have been completely focused on building the best PC and current gen console experience for Splinter Cell players. Our desire was to bring Splinter Cell Blacklist to as many PC gamers as possible.
I come from a demoscene background, and had lots of fun writing small and heavily optimized programs for old computers like the Atari ST. I really enjoy squeezing the most we can out of old hardware. It is a complementary pleasure to pushing new technology forward. So while developing the latest shiny DX11 tech is incredibly exciting, it's also satisfying for me to really optimize our DX9 build so we can support gamers that want to play the game on Windows XP.
PCGHDid you program your own physics engine or do you still utilize the Havok middleware, eg in an updated version? If you use Havok, does the game even support hardware accelerated physics calculated on the GPU (via OpenCL or Direct Compute)?
Leon O'Reilly: We are very pleased with the Havok physics engine and its ability to bring game worlds to life.
PCGH: By now multi core CPUs have become very popular and the next-gen consoles utilize an 8-core Jaguar CPU. Did you improve the multi-threading compatibility of Blacklist compared to Conviction? How many cores are supported and what is the expected performance gain from 2, 4 or even 8 cores?
Leon O'Reilly: We make good use of the extended multi-threading ability on PC. The game will scale to as many cores as you have in your machine. A great example of this is our software rasterizing occlusion system. We do a pre-pass on the geometry to determine visibility. In Splinter Cell Conviction we did this on the GPU, but this caused some CPU/GPU stalls as one waited for the other to complete its operations. Now we get the CPU to rasterize occlusion geometry. With multiple cores, this becomes a big win - we split the triangle rendering jobs over multiple cores and parallelize these jobs. The more cores you have, the more quickly we can process the triangles. It's this kind of approach to software architecture that really allows us to scale over multiple cores.
PCGH: Conviction offered only Multi-Sampling Anti-Aliasing (MSAA) and now we assume TXAA for Blacklist; can we expect Super-Sampling Anti-Aliasing (SSAA) or Fast-Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA) as well?
Leon O'Reilly: Image quality is a big thing for us, and we know the PC can deliver amazing image quality. It was key for us to bring the best anti-aliasing techniques to Splinter Cell Blacklist. We still have MSAA, but we increased the portfolio of AA options we support. We have FXAA, which delivers great results for little cost. We have SSAA which looks incredible but is expensive, and we have worked with our partners at Nvidia to bring TXAA to Splinter Cell. This gives SSAA like results at a fraction of the cost, and it also has a temporal component so inter-frame artifacts are well handled too. We are really happy with the way game looks, it's really the best looking Splinter Cell title ever made.
PCGH: Thanks for the interview!
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