You all knew this was coming. In fact, many of you tweeted me yesterday inquiring exactly when you might expect to see such a piece from me. Well, here it is. First, a full disclosure. Elder Scrolls Online is currently undergoing beta. Therefore this piece will be looking at the visuals of the game as it stands as of this writing. With the formalities out of the way, just what can you expect from a visual standpoint in ESO? Boy, it sure would make our life easier if we had the graphics options in front of us.
Ask and you shall receive. Apologies if the top portion of this menu seems chopped off. I assure you the only options I couldn’t capture were the fullscreen/windowed option, as well as resolution (in case you were wondering, the highest resolution for me is 1920×1080 since I’m playing on my TV).
VSync + AA
The first two options we see are for vertical sync (vsync) and antialiasing. In simplest terms, vsync is a feature that reduces screen tearing. It forces your GPU to match the refresh rate of your monitor. Screen tearing occurs when a frame is dropped from the buffer on your GPU before sending it to your display. Sometimes, the frame isn’t rendered yet, or it is rendered too late. If this happens, you’ll notice tearing on your screen where one frame ends and another begins. The image will look like two separate images being joined awkwardly rather than one continuous image.
Fortunately, the vsync in ESO is actually quite good. In fact, it looks like ZOS has implemented triple buffering. This prevents stuttering from your game if your GPU renders at a rate disproportional to your display refresh rate. In effect, it allows for framerate between 30 or 60 (or 120) instead of being “locked” at 30 or 60. Just trust me, it’s good and it works.
Antialiasing helps reduce aliasing, or “jaggies” as they’re known in the industry. The reasons behind why aliasing occurs are quite complex and extremely technical so I shall spare you the details. I am happy to report that the antialiasing solution ZOS employs here is quite effective. I’m a little disappointed that alternate solutions aren’t available like MSAA, CSAA, or even SMAA. As the game stands now, there is only an option to either turn on antialiasing or turn it off. However, this being an MMO, I’m willing to compromise.
The AA solution looks to be a post solution, akin to FXAA or possibly SMAA. I say this because not only does the AA smooth out aliasing on objects, but it also appears to have some alpha coverage as well, that is, transparent surfaces like grass, hair, and leaves look to be affected by the AA. Kudos to ZOS.
The textures all look pretty sharp…mostly. Some surfaces like bases of pillars look to have lower resolution textures than their surroundings, but unless you’re a graphics min/maxer like me, you won’t notice it. The anisotropic filtering (AF) looks to be lacking a little. AF refers to the sharpness of textures when viewed at an angle. The lack of sharpness isn’t jarring by any means, but it is there. Again, I doubt many people will notice it. My guess is that the texture resolution is at least 2k. In any case, very pretty.
Subsampling is an odd beast. I must admit, I’m not entirely sure what subsampling is in ESO. The game defines it as “the resolution in which the game will render the world”. If this is the case, it might be an overall map applied to the world at large, determining the detail of the world as a whole rather than as individual parts. If my assumption is somewhat true, then bravo ZOS. Your world looks stunning on its highest setting.
Fortunately, ESO seem to be rendering the shadows on the GPU. I simply can’t state how important this is, as rendering shadows on the CPU (Skyrim) needlessly taxes your system. In short, the shadow maps in ESO are quite beautiful. I couldn’t see any aliasing on the shadows either, which is most impressive.
The water reflection in this game is insane. There looks to be a subtle parallax effect to the shaders as well, providing a truly three dimensional, dynamic look to the water. The water does reflect the environment around it in real time. Capping it off, it looks like in certain areas such as streams, flow shaders are used to create further movement. All of these things in tandem help further the realism of the water in this game. Truly gorgeous.
Particle systems are at their best when you don’t notice them. Meaning, they’re realistic enough that you simply push them aside because you expect them to look and behave a certain way. To that extent. ESO’s particle systems look pretty good. I’m not sure if there are hard particles (think sparks from a forge striking the ground), but from what I’ve seen, they’re quite pretty.
Unfortunately, the view distance (draw distance) leaves much to be desired. Even when maxed out, ESO simply doesn’t provide that same expansive feeling one gets from the single player titles. This is perhaps due to the nature of the MMO, but it’s nevertheless disappointing. One can hope a future patch can find some optimization to allow greater draw distance.
Ah yes, ambient occlusion. I love ambient occlusion. The addition of ambient occlusion always helps flesh out the lighting of the world, creating a much richer, deeper, truly three dimensional lighting solution. Since last I played beta, ZOS must have done some serious optimization on this front. The ambient occlusion looks very concise, very tight, and extremely accurate (take note of the self shadowing from the roots on the tree above). I’m not sure how many samples ZOS is using in their solution, but the results speak for themselves, Really stunning work.
Bloom is effectively the amount of “glow” surrounding light sources within a game. Certain surfaces like metal will pronounce this effect simply because they are more reflective than stone. Of course, this is also dependent on the shaders used, but I digress. Simply put, the bloom in ESO is not overused. It’s there, but it’s not overt. I applaud the subtle use of this effect. It brings some of that otherworldly quality to the game and suits the franchise perfectly.
Depth of field only occurs during speech, in my experience. I’ve only ever noticed it when conversing with NPCs. It’s a subtle effect, providing a slight cinematic quality to the game. I have always been a fan of depth of field, and that is no different in this game.
Distortion simply refers to the distortion around certain objects, such as fire. Directly surrounding the fire, the environment looks a little distorted, just like in reality. Again, this is one of those subtle features that further convinces you of the authenticity of the world.
Sunlight rays (god rays) are simply stunning in this game. Just take a look at the image above. You really get that epic, dramatic lighting everywhere you turn. Honestly, the implementation of god rays in ESO is something that continually takes my breath away. It might not be true volumetric lighting, meaning it won’t realistically interact with smoke and fog, but its effect is nevertheless profound.
Finally, the grass setting is pretty straightforward: do you want to render grass or not? That being said, the density of the vegetation in this game is pretty damn impressive, not just for an MMO, but for RPGs in general. I’m definitely surprised by just how many foliage sprites ZOS was able to cram into this game. It looks pretty cool.
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And there you have it folks, my breakdown of the graphics in ESO. Remember, the game is still in beta and as patches roll out, you can be sure some engine optimizations will be made. For now, however, this author remains impressed. Have fun adventuring!