The Forza Horizon franchise has carved out its own space, veering away from the main series of racing titles of Turn 10 and proposing an arcade racing setting set in a huge open world. The evolution of the series has been slow but spectacular, so much so that nowadays it has become a product with its own identity, and in Forza Horizon 4 Playground Games aims to achieve something special from a technical point of view: to create a game that funds on the technology of the last chapter and that it focuses on Xbox One X as the queen platform.

“I think there’s a distinct fidelity gap between Forza Horizon 4 and Forza Horizon 3,” says creative director Ralph. “It’s partly a natural consequence of Xbox One X being our queen platform. It allows us to increase the detail. But I also think that with each chapter we get better use of our technical tools, we get better and more efficient with the resources available. Our processes and our technique become more refined, so I think you are simply witnessing a team that has gained enormous experience in making Forza Horizon games, always going further, keeping the same direction. “

Moving from the Australian heat to a British environment characterized by the changing seasons impacts development in many ways, providing a worthy challenge to Playground’s artistic and technical departments. The choice of location is a nice starting point, and involved careful visits to places to be rendered around the state using the best techniques. UK landscapes are carefully replicated using a digital elevation model, which ensures authentic reproduction.

“We base our game world map on DEM data, which basically represents a satellite image,” says Ralph Fulton. “In Australia we could only get an image at 30m resolution. What resulted was a map of a spongy height, so you could see what a mountain was but also what it wasn’t. In the UK, you can get data instead. DEM satellites with a resolution of 5 meters, resulting in a much richer height and resolution map, which allows you to have all the facets of mountains and cliffs. “

This is a lot of data to work with, but on the other hand, the art team has a lot more options at their disposal. Technical art director Gareth Harwood explains that this provides a ready-made foundation for the artist team to work on.

“We started by working on the basis of the system we had in Forza Horizon 3, a vertical field system that allowed us to create terrains very quickly and easily for artists to work with,” he explains. “This automatically creates the LODs, creates the collisions, and gives artists more time to focus on their work, while they normally have to worry about technical limitations when we create our world from scratch.”

The idea of ​​implementing all four seasons was also a challenge for the team. “With the seasons we had to find a new way to model all the new materials according to the time of year. We then used a system that allowed artists to choose which material to model once, which would then undergo reflections and facets in all of them. the different seasons, ”Hardwood explains. “For example, we were modeling a wheat field, and we could tell what a wheat field looked like in spring, summer, autumn and winter, and also how it was managed, what kind of crop you had, if there was 3D wheat, or if it were empty; this also applied to deformable snow, and what kind of grip levels you had. “

This reproduction of the UK would not be complete, however, if we focused only on the ground. The sky is in fact modeled with care, as is the lighting that goes hand in hand. The art team operated 24-hour time-lapse photo sessions to capture the ideal sky conditions for every season, every hour of the day and every weather condition. From season to season, the transition into the game is not as gradual as it is in reality, but thanks to the meticulous outdoor photo sessions operated by Playground Games you will have the best reproduction of each season. It is Great Britain reproduced in the best way.

“The assets we found were 1.2TB in weight per shot,” explains CG supervisor Jamie Wood. “Each shot we capture takes about four weeks of post-processing, and the result is an HDRI sequence image. We take these images that become the sky, and of course we also generate cubemaps for the lighting, directional mappings for the fog. and cone masks shadow for the ground. And since we’re out there capturing real-world data, we can also transfer the collected weather information, and make sure our dynamic weather implementation is accurate. “

He describes it as an unprecedented job, compared to a journey that had never been undertaken until now. That sky captured at high dynamic range then propagates into the lighting, regardless of the time of day, weather, or season in the game. It represents the hard core of the game’s lighting, a clear step up from Forza Horizon 3.

Xbox One X offers two modes, with the performance mode running fixed at 1920×1080, while the quality mode at a full 3840×2160. Both also enjoy 4x MSAA. Dynamic headlight lights are removed from performance mode to keep 60fps in check. Ambient occlusion is also reduced, as you can see below the outline of the machine here. Motion blur acts less noticeably with the selected performance mode, although undeniably the 4K quality mode provides an overall clearer picture.

Playground also explains that lighting, shadows and especially vegetation highlights have improved across the board with an enhanced model. With Xbox One X being the lead platform, many engine enhancements are automatically reduced to the base Xbox One. But the X’s jump to 4K resolution reveals to what extent the team managed to improve the game over the previous chapter. For example, snow returns after its appearance in Horizon 3’s Blizzard Mountain DLC. We now have a stochastic lighting model, which allows you to see sparks on a bed of snow. At 4K, and especially with HDR activated on the X, you’ll get a crisp, sparkling result during the winter.

Tessellation is also a strong point. The game runs with improved tesselation on the deformable snowpack, rendered at ten times higher quality on Xbox One X than on base Xbox One. The whole thing creates a great impact, even going at great speed; but it is the Xbox One X that creates more marked ruts in the snow as the cars pass. The winter season was described as a great challenge by the team, but improved effects like this create something unique. Transform the terrain into normal conditions to such an extent that it becomes unrecognizable, as if we were facing a totally new game. The team has taken a big step forward from the previous snow reproduction, with the cars’ road holding being modified to faithfully reproduce driving in these conditions.

Another sector that Playground has worked on is that of reflections. Cubemaps are still used for car bodywork, but this time, screen-space reflections are added to the grounds. In humid winter or autumn settings, this allows the art team to work less to prepare a set of reflex mapping; using SSR in many games there is a cut around edges in how surfaces are reflected. Here, however, the reproduction is more accurate and usually it is possible to avoid this inconvenience. In this area, the X enjoys a 2x detail boost over the standard console.

Ambient lighting is also a new engine feature, originally made for Xbox One X but also implemented in the console’s base model feature set. This is a volumetric occlusion technique that allows cars to cast a color shadow on nearby buildings. There is a slight refractive effect that is noticeable as you approach objects, and it applies regardless of the type of car. In addition to this, screen-space ambient occlusion is finally included in Forza Horizon 4; this adds a nuance between the cars, the plants and the buildings. However, this SSAO technique is only present on Xbox One X in quality mode.

The Xbox One X version in its quality mode. We have a full 3840×2160 output here, while the same mode runs at 1920×1080 on Xbox One. The graphics feature block is similar from an asset standpoint, but the X enjoys higher quality car interiors. Motion blur quality is evidently higher on X, thus reducing the banding artifacts we have in motion on the base console. The dynamic shadows cast by the headlights are also a unique feature of the X. See the car below that lacks the effect on the base Xbox One. Vegetation density has increased by 50 percent on X, and shadow rendering seems to have a wider range of action as well.Texture filtering also gets an upgrade to X. Surfaces are sharper from oblique angles and terrain assets are rendered at double resolution. Screen-space ambient occlusion is only included on the X, with its 4K quality mode adding nuances around the outside of the car.

On top of all this, there is a substantial series of upgrades to graphics options. Lens flare effects are improved on both consoles, and motion blur in motion is enhanced on X to match the high value of the PC version. The shadows, on the other hand, are on par with ultra PC quality from the point of view of resolution and general quality. One of the most exciting new features in Forza Horizon 4 coming to X is the dynamic night shadows. Look closely and you can see the lights of the cars and those of the street lamps create shapes when the cars move, an effect that is only enabled in the 4K mode of Xbox One X.

In addition, the Forza Horizon 4 technology wants to create a typically English setting that is more interactive than that of the previous chapters. Physics-based destruction is enhanced and plasterboard walls can be demolished by impacting at the right speed, and this feature is present on all platforms. Similarly, it is also possible to uproot the not too big branches of the trees when you end up on them, another aspect that increases the feeling of being there in that virtual world much more than what happened in the previous chapters.

Xbox One X may be treated as the lead platform, but the base console also offers a much improved game over the previous chapter. It’s a reflex effect: many enhancements are designed for the premium console and are also used on the standard console. But the X this time offers a unique version. With more development time than the three months allowed to release an X patch in Forza Horizon 3, this 4K quality mode is a far better showcase of the X’s GPU capabilities.

“With forward rendering we can take advantage of MSAA,” explains Alan. “So we did it again, we implemented 4x MSAA at 4K . This is a cornerstone for us, it’s really exciting to offer such a level of quality. We also considered FXAA, but we decided to go with 4x MSAA and 4K, and the graphics options we have on Xbox One X “.

In comparison, the base console offers a step back in image quality, but on a full HD screen it is equally impressive. You get the native resolution 1920×1080 with the same 4x MSAA and a target frame-rate of 30fps, while on X it goes to 3840×2160 and the details stand out in your eyes like never before. The team had to organize for this: a higher number of pixels requires higher quality assets and effects, and in many cases the resolution of these is doubled. For example, textures are at a higher resolution on X, taking advantage of the extra memory available.

“One of the things we focused on was the quality of the road textures, and the terrain in particular,” explains lead engine programmer Andy Sage. “In addition to pushing resolution to take advantage of the 4K output of the Xbox One X, we also focused on the quality of the materials. We have twice the blend textures for the ground to improve its realism. We also tried to work to render the ‘more realistic asphalt on its surfaces. The X proved to be fantastic for the quality of shading, but also thanks to the greater amount of memory. “

Continuing along this line, the foliage density has been increased by 50 percent. The difference in practice is not always visible, but an increase was necessary to equalize the increase in resolution to 4K. We will analyze the PC version on another occasion, as this offers an extreme mode that enhances the LODs, shadows and reflections even more. What Xbox One X’s quality mode does is close the gap to the PC in some clever ways.

There’s more? Well, once again the dynamic night shadows cast by the headlights are an Xbox One X exclusive feature when running at 4K and 30fps, ditto for ambient occlusion. These features are completely lacking on the base Xbox One, which however takes the lion’s share by sharing most of the graphics features. Look closely and you will see that the X has some extra fine details, such as lens flares. This effect appears on the bodywork of cars during the summer season. In addition to the anamorphic lens flare, which is present on both consoles, this X-exclusive effect adds a glow to concentrated sunlight in one spot. It’s still an effect you’ll only notice if you look closely, so a welcome extra but it doesn’t change the experience.

Moving on to performance, the two consoles are well optimized for 30fps. Sometimes there is the sensation of some ripple in the fluidity, presumably due to the streaming of the textures. But for 99 percent of the time Forza Horizon 4 is stuck at the 30fps target frame-rate characteristic of the series. And this regardless of what appears on the screen.

The most interesting aspect, however, is the new 60fps performance mode, available exclusively on Xbox One X. The trade-off is the reduction of the resolution down to 1920×1080, but at least the 4x MSAA is maintained which increases the sharpness. Obviously, this compromise brings image quality and graphic options similar to those for the basic version. It seems to regress to the less powerful console this way, but in reality the team says that this mode is optimized by importing as many graphics options as possible from the 4K quality mode, including improved textures, foliage and lighting. Looking at the comparative images between the two modes, they are very close at first glance.

Digging deeply, however, we find cuts. For starters, you lose the dynamic lighting effect for the quality mode headlights, and ambient occlusion is also on a low level. But otherwise, it’s the drastic drop to 1080p that makes the most noticeable difference. Slowing down the movement of the vegetation also shows a less pronounced motion blur which combined with the rendering at 60fps can result in sharper images when cornering. There is no doubt that the quality mode offers more detail and more refined effects, and is more effective overall.

It’s all thanks to Playground Games if the two modes are so close despite the 60fps. Full HD resolution is certainly fixed, and when we asked the team if there was any dynamic scaler involved (perhaps hitting 1440p when X’s GPU was capable), the answer was that it could be implemented. in the future. As things stand now, the target frame-rate of 60fps is well achieved when stopping at 1080p, and it’s hardly possible to experience dips. As with the 30fps mode, however, there are some situations during the fall season where some uncertainty can be felt in the fluidity. But that’s not a lazy job, and Playground Games rewrote the code from scratch to make 60fps a reality, and frame drops are a rarity nonetheless.

Playground Games’ work on the Forza Horizon series has improved with each release, and the UK-set location with unprecedented season support gives the studio the right exposure for technical upgrades. The past two years have been spent making a fantastic racing game that aims to surprise. Technically, it’s wonderful to both watch and play, and the result is a gem in the Xbox One X line-up that deserves attention.

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