Red Dead Redemption 2 sets a new standard from a technical standpoint and is the result of a truly unique development path. With Grand Theft Auto 5, Rockstar packed the highest-earning title in video game history and, as a result, was able to invest all the time, money and resources needed to realize their vision for the definitive game. The final product is a technical masterpiece, to the point of reaching and even surpassing the best first-party titles of this generation.
It’s another key element that makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so fascinating. Grand Theft Auto 5 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One came with a myriad of improvements over the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions but, fundamentally, it was a game rooted in the last generation. Rockstar’s new work, on the other hand, was obviously created with the current generation platforms in mind, sharing and extending many of the most advanced technologies seen in the industry in recent times. That said, it’s also a game that looks decidedly different from all the other open world titles released in this generation, almost as if it was developed in isolation and the team focused on visual details that you wouldn’t expect to find in a product of. this carat.
Ultimately, therefore, we are facing the umpteenth evolution of Rockstar’s RAGE engine. There are many familiar elements but the developer took the opportunity to push the technical presentation to a new level. What’s even more impressive is that the studio has managed to deliver all of this in native 4K on Xbox One X even though, it must be said, resolution is just one aspect of stellar visual quality. To begin with, a temporal anti-aliasing technology has been implemented that works great – with large viewing distances and hundreds of small details displayed at the same time, it is a key factor in delivering a sharp and stable image and in reducing the effect. shimmering. The TAA solution adopted here is aggressive and returns a
Red Dead Redemption 2 also features motion blur applied to individual objects, perhaps for the first time in Rockstar’s history. It is a subtle effect which, however, increases the sense of fluidity, lacking in other open world games such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or The Witcher 3. However, the elements we have listed so far are only basic aspects of the image quality, the lens through where the game is viewed. It is the game world, the most incredible achievement by the developers.
In creating an open world title, the development team faces numerous challenges when trying to make something that is beautiful to look at and also fun to play. From our point of view, the best open world games are those that offer a clever mix of an excellent sense of the vastness of the world, with wide passable expanses, a large amount of detail and a rich simulation. A world like that is made up of various pieces: vast lands, dense forests, crowded cities, high mountains and immense skies.
Rockstar has spent a lot of time (and presumably a lot of GPU resources) creating the spectacular skies of Red Dead Redemption 2, which play a vital part in setting the mood and setting. Over the past few years, developers have made numerous advancements in rendering skies, setting aside flat textures and billboards and developing volumetric solutions. Red Dead Redemption 2’s cloud rendering system supports dynamic variation of the time of day, weather and cloud types, with sunlight realistically penetrating and spreading through the soft cloud bodies. When it rains or snows, light penetration is adequately reduced to simulate dark, dense clouds that contribute to the construction of the atmosphere. In the right conditions,
With the little information we have about the way this system was implemented, we can hypothesize the method used by the developers to achieve the result. Based on our observations, we are faced with a solution very similar to that adopted for Horizon Zero Dawn which, in essence, used light rays passing through in variable 2D and 3D textures. Guerrilla Games was able to keep rendering costs down by updating the clouds every 16 frames and rebuilding from this data – it seems Rockstar used a similar method here. Clouds flow smoothly across the sky with minimal visual artifacts even when we observe their movement in real time. There is a huge assortment of possible cloud formations that give the game an impressive sense of variety in the skies. L’ What we liked the most about Rockstar’s system, however, is the storm management with the sky gradually darkening and the wind intensifying by raising the dust that lies on the ground. It is a truly evocative scenario.
This is a huge step up from Grand Theft Auto 5 where the clouds were created based on a Perlin pattern spread over a large dome surrounding the game world. This allows you to view a large variation in the behavior of the clouds but it lacks the three-dimensionality guaranteed by the volumetric system of Red Dead Redemption 2: the clouds simply move on the surface of the virtual dome. It all works quite well in real-time and the limitations of this method only come to the surface by looking at the game in time-lapse but the one used for Red Dead Redemption 2 is the first example of a generational leap in open world aesthetics. And that’s just the beginning.
Lights from the sky naturally cast shadows of a quality rarely seen in an open world console game. Similar to GTA5, cascading shadow maps appear to have been used but Rockstar has developed a clever new solution to simulate contact clumping. It’s a notable and more resource-intensive way to create a more accurate effect, with shadows close to objects appearing sharper, becoming more prevalent the further they move away from it. It’s all related to the position of the sun and the length of the shadows and being an open world title with a full day / night cycle, everything is dynamically generated in real time. Not only that, but shadow rendering is also affected by cloud cover.
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In short, it is about making direct or indirect shadows: when we are in direct sunlight, the shadow will be well defined while a cloudy day will produce more diffuse shadows. A great touch of class. The feeling is that both types of shadows are rendered at the same time – perhaps the game manages to combine them to allow sharper shadows to appear in bright lighting situations and more diffuse shadows when the sky is cloudy. In both cases, shadow maps are always sampled with a pattern designed to soften edges, while distant diffuse shadows often use a blur to simulate scattering of light.
All of this is to say that the team clearly paid a lot of attention to the behavior of shadows in this type of environment and found creative ways to simulate it. It’s an attention to detail we’ve rarely seen in a console game, let alone in an open world of this complexity. All of this is enhanced by a robust set of atmospheric effects that play a huge role in defining the visual style of Red Dead Redemption 2 with volumetric fog and light wells and water reflection and refraction phenomena.
During the day, the volumes of fog are used to greatly increase the atmosphere with the light appearing to disperse in the air in a realistic way. Their placement and intensity vary greatly based on weather conditions and map areas but the effect is very convincing: there is a real sense of density in the air where appropriate. At night, smaller local fog volumes are used to create a rather hazy atmosphere with dynamic lights illuminating the street. If we had to guess, we’d say Rockstar is using 3D textures aligned with the camera – the idea is that artists can use this feature to place individual froxel volumes where needed. The way sunlight can interact with these volumes and produce beautiful twilight rays is particularly impressive at dusk or dawn, times when sunlight crosses the landscape in a truly realistic way. Rockstar uses this technology extensively throughout the game, giving the world a sense of depth that surpasses all of its previous productions.
Water plays an important role in defining the world and, in this respect too, various techniques have been used to achieve impressive results. First of all, the reflections on the water were managed using a mix of screen-space reflections and low resolution textures generated by specific parts of the scenery. The game world includes a wide variety of rivers and large water bodies with different properties so reflections exhibit a wide variety of different definitions. Everything works fine but the screen-space reflections show the typical artifact on the edges of the screen – a famous limitation of this technique. Obviously, if an object is not displayed on the screen it will not even be reflected. In addition to this, refraction maps have also been included,
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Let’s now look at the building blocks used to create the environment itself. Rockstar is famous for making large and memorable worlds, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is no exception. With the amount of additional memory included in modern consoles, the developer has been able to increase the amount of models and textures compared to previous games. One of the most important elements for a game of this type is the sense of breadth of its settings. Red Dead Redemption 2 includes many open fields extending to the horizon that require careful LOD management to function properly. The original Red Dead was able to achieve convincing results by focusing on a dusty and dry setting with very limited vegetation. This sequel, on the other hand,
The game seems to work in a similar way to previous RAGE titles – basically, it’s about managing the transition well between details close to and further away from the player. This is done by using lower polygon meshes for distant areas of the world while resources are loaded for higher details as the player approaches. If we look closely at the distance, we can see the precise point where the game passes between these different levels but it seems that the artists have taken a lot of time and effort to make something that looks almost perfect during the crossing. The LOD pop-in is really hard to get rid of completely but the cohesion in Red Dead Redemtpion 2’s open world rendering is a key aspect in terms of immersion. Streaming and memory management are always difficult, and Rockstar has managed to minimize or completely eliminate the typically associated performance spikes. There is virtually no hitch when crossing at high speed and you will never get the feeling that the game is having a hard time making the world to you.
The design of the environment is also fascinating. Rockstar has built the world with many visible landmarks designed to make it easier to navigate. You can follow the train tracks to locate the various cities or simply stroll along the coast. The landscape design is very deliberate, and after a couple of hours, you can safely wander around without relying on the map. Even better: you can activate or deactivate the mini map at any time by holding down one of the directional keys and pressing the button associated with this feature. This is a fantastic addition that eliminates the need to open a menu for adjusting the HUD settings. It might seem like a trifle but, in reality, it is a clear sign that time and effort has been put into creating a world that is accurate to the smallest detail. This is very important to encourage immersion: a good open world should be large, open but easy to memorize, and Red Dead Redemption 2 does well in this respect.
Of course, the game’s distinctive panoramas are just one of the cornerstones for realism and immersion. Details close to the field of view are equally important, if not more so. Red Dead Redemption 2 marks Rockstar’s first full foray into physics-based rendering, which has become increasingly popular in this generation. The PBR, of course, tries to simulate as accurately as possible the interaction of light through the surfaces of materials, taking into account aspects such as surface roughness and reflectivity. As Red Dead takes place in the late 1800s, modern, sleek materials are relatively rare, so the move to PBR adds further realism that greatly enhances the presentation.
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This is especially evident when we explore areas like Saint Denis, the wonderful representation of New Orleans included in the game. This fantastic port city is filled with stone, wood and metal that help create truly lifelike results. The combination of PBR materials with the pre-calculated global illumination technique and volumetric fog helps build a truly cohesive image that often manages to take your breath away. While sunny and bright days are certainly gorgeous, darker scenes are often even more dramatic. Indirect lighting is simply phenomenal and the team managed to perfectly simulate the reflection of light on all objects that appear on the screen.
This is arguably the biggest improvement over GTA5. Its origins as a PS3 / 360 title, in fact, are evident in the way it handles materials that are not based on physics while the lighting system is nowhere near comparable. There are also many geometrically dense structures placed throughout the environment, especially in cities. Building facades display an impressive amount of detail with high resolution textures, rounded arches and carefully sculpted edges. To complete the work there is a copious amount of self-shaded Parallax Occlusion Maps. Red Dead uses this technique for a wide range of surfaces, including stone, mud and dirt patches, the brick walls used in building construction and even the roof tiles. One of the best examples of this technology in action is the train track – the gravel uses POMs, of course, as well as the wooden planks on which the rails are affixed.
Outside of urban environments, vegetation was used in large volumes. Trees, bushes and grass are freely arranged throughout the landscape. The main assets are of high resolution and there seems to be a great variety of them, so as to solve a potential problem with repeating patterns in large fields or forests. What’s more, ambient shading is realistic and subtle across plants, and light believably penetrates leaves and grass with just the right density. Moving through a dense forest, there is a large variety of tree resources which, when combined with the local volumetric fog, really enhances the atmosphere of the game a lot. Plants and branches also feature folding points that collide with the character models, giving the
Snow makes for an interesting comparison to GTA5 as both games start with snowy sequences. The introduction of warping and a new material system greatly increases the realism of Red Dead Redemption 2 over its immediate predecessor, appearing more natural and less static. There is also a realistic deformation system similar to that seen in Rise of the Tomb Raider, applied to snow and mud. The tracks remain visible from a great distance from the player, allowing you to easily retrace your steps. If you look closely, you will also see that puddles form inside holes and inlets in the ground during rain.
Red Dead Redemption 2 sets a new standard in terms of overall realism. An example to support this thesis is the way in which light passes through fabrics. If you enter a tent you will realize that the sun’s rays penetrate through the canvas with diffuse shadows cast by the vegetation on the materials. If you go out at night you can admire, however, the opposite effect: the light of the lamps in your camp will shine outwards.
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Another aspect in which enormous efforts have been made is the detail of the individual characters. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a story-based game and includes a large number of cutscenes showing close-ups of the characters. The texture quality is relatively high while the hair and beard have been convincingly shaped by growing over time with the need to shave from time to time (unless you prefer to wear a long beard, of course). Sub-surface dispersion is applied to the skin in both cutscenes and gameplay allowing sunlight to penetrate the skin’s surface and disperse accurately. The clothing is also detailed and varied with realistic textures for leather, fur and fabric.
On top of that, a lot of work has gone into simulating animations and physics. As you walk, your gear and clothing will realistically bounce with each step, while animated normal maps are used to simulate the folding and twisting of the fabric. This same technique is also applied to the horse: you will be able to see his muscles contract realistically as he gallops. The level of detail is exceptional, so if you stop to take a closer look at your horse, for example, you can even see it breathe. Reverse kinetics are applied to the character’s movement, allowing him to properly adjust to the terrain, regardless of pitch. If you fall from a high point, your character will realistically roll down the hill.
The animation department is really excellent with a realistic representation of the weight of each step and each punch. Crossing the world on the back of a horse is an experience that you will remember for a long time thanks to a much higher achievement than seen in other wonderful games such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The horse animation somehow brings to mind the excellent results achieved by Bluepoint this year with the remake of Shadow of the Colossus.
The fidelity of the animation holds up across the board, extending to the first person view of Red Dead Redemption 2. This feature was already implemented in Grand Theft Auto 5 when it was ported to current generation platforms and is a great addition. Basically, first-person mode allows you to experience the game a little differently, with increased movement speed, an adjustable field of view, and lots of really well-done first-person animations. It’s a surprisingly engaging way to play and can be activated at any time by swiping through the different camera options with the press of a button. It is also possible to activate a cinema camera by briefly pressing and holding the same button.
Writing this article was almost like creating a collection of ‘wow, that’s great!’ but, in reality, a single article covering seven years of work by some of the industry’s most talented developers only allows you to scratch the surface of the overall result, particularly when Red Dead 2’s unprecedented level of immersion is built on many, small details. The fact is that this year there have been many wonderful games released from a graphic point of view such as, for example, the Spider-Man of Insomniac but the level of immersion and detail seen in Red Dead Redemption 2 really left us breathless. Rockstar has always managed to build wonderful worlds and it is not wrong to say that even the first episode of the saga holds up well from this point of view, today again. The sequel, however, pushes things to another level and really represents a not indifferent generational leap. There are chances that you have seen video and gameplay of the game but we really believe that the Rockstar promotional material for the game doesn’t do justice to the experience offered by the title.
From a technological point of view there are a lot of really great aspects but are there areas where the game leaves something to be desired? Well, there are several variations in terms of performance on the various platforms, as we have seen in this dedicated article. However, in terms of common settings across systems, we’re not sure that HDR offers many tangible benefits, and certainly the calibration system is limited. Most of our gameplay has been in SDR, mostly for video production purposes, so that’s something we’ll need to investigate further. In conclusion, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game worth experiencing as it offers one of the most detailed and immersive open worlds we’ve ever seen on consoles. In reality,