The signature hook of GTA games has that they’ve always taken place in a massive sandbox of getting your cash back from hookers. All that massiveness has come at a price though, with GTA games never being exactly the very best in terms of raw graphical power. But expect that to change in GTA V.
Speaking to Buzzfeed, Rockstar North art director Aaron Garbut explained that because previous GTA games took place in massive environments, there was a price to pay in the visuals department for that open world scale. “Visual fidelity has knock-ons. San Andreas was effectively a bunch of cubes of various sizes stuck in between roads,” Garbut said.
I love it, and love what we did, but really that was what it was. Open-world games have pretty much always been a step or two behind the curve visually compared to more linear games.
They have to be for a number of reasons. You can’t fake anything as soon as you have flying in a game and you can go anywhere; anything you see has to be real. That takes a lot of power and so you have to compromise. The trick is to compromise on the right things.
Secondly, just in terms of sheer production, building a large, fully explorable world takes a lot more effort than building your typical game’s movie-set style series of facades, which tend to be tunnels of detail through an environment rather than a fully realized whole. As console power has increased and our experience has increased, I think we’re narrowing that gap more and more.
Garbut then explained how exactly GTA games had compromised on delivering animated cities with the knock-on effect of having less visual splendour in the past. “While we might lose a little fidelity by not being able to do that “tunnel of detail” that more linear games manage, I think we gain a lot more. There’s nothing quite as empowering as having a world to explore that feels right, and feels real, and having the toys to do just about anything,” Garbut said.
The key is the limit of the experience becomes your own imagination rather than whatever the guys that created that tunnel for you thought it should be. I think we’ve done our job if we’ve created a world that you love to spend time in and one that keeps giving for years to come. We’ve been trying to do that since Grand Theft Auto III, but I think we’ve taken a big step forward.
Every part of the world is handcrafted and really thought through. It all makes sense and has an internal logic. It feels more immersive and real because every part of it has had to stand up to multiple people questioning it.
As soon as I play a game and the internal logic is blown, the experience is ruined for me. Even the basics: How do the people live their life? Where do they work, how do they get there, where do they eat their lunch, where do they grab a coffee, where do they go for fun?
Don’t expect to see any pop up textures or mist that just always happens to obscure a certain distance of the map though. As Garbut explains, the game will always constantly be cycling in the terrain, as you explore it thanks to some dynamic lighting effects:
I think one of the most amazing features is the way we handle lighting in the game to maintain a consistent look despite the constraints on realistic lighting and shadows on current hardware. Every single light we place in the world is stored, streamed, and laid into the map, even into the distance.
The entire world draws all the time: You can fly high in the air at one corner of the map, look over the miles of city and skyscrapers, over the hills and desert to the furthest ridges of the most distant mountains. It’s all there and visible.
That’s amazing to see. But the really cool bit is that you can see a street light in a distant town, fly toward it for kilometres until the street itself is visible and the light bulb eventually comes into view. It’s amazing. It’s a level of solidity that I’ve never seen before. It brings the world alive in an incredibly realistic and organic way.
That all the lighting the artists have placed to fill out streets and buildings form, at a macro level, the shape of the settlements themselves, that you can look over the desert and see the little towns and trailer parks miles away and get a feel for the road layout even in total darkness and know that it’s not faked, that you can go there: That’s cool.
I’ve got to admit, for what will most likely be the final hurrah of GTA on this generation of gaming, it looks pretty good. Sure, there’s a concession here or there on console, but I’m expecting PC gamers to find a way to really make the game pop with some new mods in the coming weeks after the September launch.