ESO Graphical Analysis

November 14th, 2013 Posted by Opinion 10 comments

It is no secret that I prioritize graphics over gameplay. I make no apologies for this. It’s just the way I enjoy games. One need only take a read of my top 5 Skyrims mods to figure that out (hint: they’re all graphics mods). I’m constantly looking for our industry to push technology, to push what is technically possible on consoles and especially on PCs. I crave progress.

It is with this mindset in hand that I look to The Elder Scrolls Online. Let us look at what we know first, for that will give us a good foundation from which to build on. For instance, we know that the game will release in spring 2014, barring any delays. We also know that ZOS wants the game to be able to run on five year old machines. Finally, we know that DirectX 11, the incredibly popular and powerful high-level API from Microsoft, has reached a certain stage of maturity. The next gen consoles will only make DX11 all that more pervasive, much to my great pleasure.

It is with these bits of information that we can begin to mold a level of understanding and expectation regarding the visuals of ESO. Lest we forget, there are many screenshots released by ZOS. Although these screenshots are taken from older builds of the game, it suits our purpose of performing a rudimentary yet satisfactory analysis of the visual fidelity of ESO. With that in mind, let us take a look at the three graphical features I find most compelling from material provided thus far.

God Rays and Post Processing

28b6ce40d343a3f2ab 600x337 ESO Graphical Analysis

This is a great image to begin our analysis. There are many things at play here. If you are technically inclined with an eye for visuals, perhaps the most obvious feature on display here are the god rays streaming through the trees towards the right hand side of the image. In most games, god rays are a post-process effect. Meaning, the image is first rendered to a buffer into memory, and then pixel shaders are used to apply filters to that buffered image before outputting the image to the screen.

God rays are all the rage nowadays. This author admits obsessing over them, especially since the ones in Crysis 3 are true volumetric god rays (meaning the god rays are actual “beams” of light with physical properties and not simply a post effect). My obsession aside, god rays allow for a few things. They help sell that fantasy feel as well as adding that extra flourish. They’re quite beautiful…if done correctly.

Depth of Field

3b60ad9fe878bdacab 600x337 ESO Graphical Analysis

This next image provides us with another feature called depth of field. This effect is noticeable towards the right hand side of the image where the buildings are slightly out of focus when compared to the Nord in the foreground. Depth of field is a technique used extensively in film. In fact, it is something your eyes do every single day.

Don’t believe me? Hold out your hand roughly six inches away from you. Look past your hand at something in the distant. You’ll notice your hand blurs out of focus. Now look at your hand. The background should now blur as your focus has shifted to your hand. That’s depth of field. It’s an incredibly cinematic and realistic effect that’s featured prominently in ENB. Of course, some players may not like it. Like a few games out there now, I can see this effect being used when the player talks to an NPC. The talking NPC would be in focus while the background blurs, focusing the player’s attention onto that NPC. It’s pretty effective and is used in many games out there now.

Ambient Occlusion

ESO screenshot 01 600x337 ESO Graphical Analysis

This is a great image to show the effect of ambient occlusion. Of all the “next gen” effects shown in various upcoming titles, ambient occlusion is simultaneously the most subtle, but the most recognizable. This may sound contradictory so it’s perhaps best explained this way. If you don’t have an eye for graphics and technical minutia, you won’t really notice the absence of ambient occlusion in games today. One need only look to the vanilla version of Skyrim. However, as soon as ambient occlusion is added, the entire image looks far more realistic and you get a much greater sense of depth. Once that effect is removed, you will notice.

So, just what exactly is ambient occlusion? In essence, ambient occlusion tries to approximate the realistic behavior of light, especially off of traditionally non-reflective surfaces such as skin. This is especially true in the image above. The Altmer’s face has realistic looking self-shadows because of ambient occlusion. The engine attempts to mimic the realistic behavior of light by taking one pixel and then taking sampling of pixels around it. If it finds an occluder, for example, the ridge of a nose, it will then cast that pixel “darker” than surrounding pixels. In effect, ambient occlusion is a crude approximation of global illumination. This is admittedly a layman’s description of the effect, but you get the idea. If implemented correctly, it’s incredibly stunning.

. . .

And there you have it. I have no doubt there are other graphical flourishes that will reveal themselves in public beta and indeed the final build of the game such as high resolution textures, antialiasing, incidence refraction and the like that are more difficult to discern in static screenshots. So far though, as a graphics purist, I’m quite impressed with the visuals we have been shown so far. ESO looks like it’s taking full advantage of DirectX 11 – and for good reason. Graphics are always something I crave. A game can never look “too good” for me. Pushing the limits of technology is a necessity in our industry. I for one am looking forward to more DX11 goodies from ZOS. You can bet that when the game launches proper, I will be taking an extensive look at the graphics of ESO.

Shadow hide you.

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Moricu says:

Great article Shank i hope the visuals will be stunning in ESO tho I’m guessing it wont look as good as vanilla skyrim just because it is a mmo, mmo’s by their nature tend to not look as good as regular games but i am hoping and cant wait to hear your take on this game when it hits us

Avatar of shankshank says:

Glad you liked it man.

One thing to remember though, Skyrim is a DX9 game. ESO will make use of DX11 so it will inherently “look” better because of it. Vanilla Skyrim had no DoF, ambient occlusion, nor god rays.

Gotta get ENB for that, which taps into the DX11 capabilities of your machine :)

Dave says:

I am wondering if the game will look as good on a Mac as it will on a PC? I have a mid 2011 iMac 27′ and am really looking forward to ESO. The fact that it will have a Mac client is the reason I plan to play.

I have to use a Mac due to my career and I know its gaming limitations. But I would love a great MMO that’s got a native client.

John says:

Use bootcamp -> no limitations

Dave says:

I am wondering if the game will look as good on a Mac as it will on a PC? I have a mid 2011 iMac 27′ and am really looking forward to ESO. The fact that it will have a Mac client is the reason I plan to play.

I have to use a Mac due to my career and I know its gaming limitations. But I would love a great MMO that has a native client.

Phil says:

Great article Shank,

Like you, I crave the visuals in game. To me the more graphically “realistic” the better. ESO is shaping up to be a real visual and sensory treat.

Again great breakdown of three key aspects to a great visual game.

Chris says:

Regarding the fact that ESO will be released on Mac I would assume their engine uses OpenGL. It is possible they wrote it for both APIs but that would be quite costly. Where did you hear they use dx11 for it? Is that officialy confirmed somewhere?

will says:

Skyrim is a cold realism, Oblivion is not a memorable quality game too, but the world is more magical, not this blue, gray, brown small florests and nothing to do, because the bug navmash fails to keep the useless idea about “climb a mountain.”

See that mountain? well.. the quest and factions, not so good, but you can climb that mountain… kudos!

Elder Scrolls Online looks very good, almost better in graphics, show a lot of color, amazing class system (creation) and probably “bug free” i mean, not broken forever, do not fail in one plataforma during a year… you know, is just “love.”

will says:

Skyrim is not that good if you take a look around, with critical sense, not just “love.”

There are so much texture glitch around, not only a texture pack very poor, but a lot of uvw and unwrap done very bad. The mountains are so fake, piles of models around the height map, with a forced realism, the most “cold” TES ever made, trully a cold region.

The class creation is so poorly upgraded, is basically a better 3d model with head animation, but loses all anatomic distinction, since Oblivion, Argonian and Kajitt are just man, with animal head, but now, not just the leg, foot are lost, everything is a regular human shape, just change texture, ears, eyes… no true changes for height, weight and so on.

Mike says:

Nice article!
What i really don’t like about ESO graphic is the the world is too much “geometrically flat”.
Take this skyrim screenshot: http://static1.nexusmods.com/15/images/110/572218-1323027618.jpg
You can clearly see that you are high above see level, you can feel how the world is “deep”, how it uses all the three dimensions.
ESO looks more like guildwars 2, you walk on an almost flat terrain, surrounded by huge buildings, mountains, trees that you can’t really see unless you move the camera far away or in an unplayable angle. You can be on a strand or at the top of the highest mountain and you don’t really feel the difference.

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