Don't Think Uncharted 4 Looks Good? A Video Compression Blog

This morning, like many of you I'm sure, I watched Sony's keynote address at its Playstation Experience in Las Vegas. With each new demo I became more and more underwhelmed with the quality of the graphics in the games on display. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem wasn't the games but the video compression being used for the stream. But video compression couldn't turn an incredible looking game into an average looking one could it? Well when the compressed version is just a fraction of the size of the full fat version then, as it turns out, it really can. So this afternoon I took the time to download the full uncompressed video which you can get here. You'll notice the only option is to torrent the file. That's because it totals more than 1.5 GB of data, far more than the average computer throughout the world can stream in real time and big enough to eat up the bandwidth allotment of all but the largest websites. But if you download the video (which I would highly recommend), the experience you'll get is revelatory. Really the difference in graphics this generation is going to come down to the ability to render fine details more realistically. And those details are completely lost when streaming a highly compressed version of any video. When it comes to the perfectionists at Naughty Dog losing all of that detail is the difference between a "meh" reveal and a stunning one.

Here are a couple things I noticed when watching the uncompressed video for those who can't download it for whatever reason or just need more incentive:

- About 2/3 of the way through the demo Nate smashes an enemy's head through a small waterfall. In the compressed version this doesn't look especially impressive but in the uncompressed version what occurs is something I have literally never seen before in a game. As Nathan's head passes under the water his hair becomes wet. And I don't mean like in the previous generation where a wet texture is placed over Nathan's body. I mean that the actual physics of his hair changes and then slowly changes back as his hair dries in the sun over the remainder of the demo. Note that his hair blows accurately in the wind up until that point in a way that looks far more realistic than Lara's hair in Tomb Raider. That's a tiny detail but its the type of tiny detail that make's Naughty Dog's games so impressive and it's something you simply can't see on the compressed video.

- Along the lines of small facial details, in last gen Uncharted games Nathan's emotions would show on his face during gameplay and his lips would move while he talked but both of these things weren't done in very high detail. In a sequence a bit later than the one I just mentioned Nate smashes another enemy's head into a wall. That's fine and all but what is really cool is watching Nate's face as the enemy approaches him. Note how Nate's eyes follow what he (or you as the player) are looking at and how his face changes expressions as the enemy moves closer and when he eventually takes him out. It's another tiny detail that is unnoticeable when all the detail is lost in compression.

- I saw several people on the web saying the textures on both the character and the environment had seen a downgrade since the E3 reveal. They haven't. The textures are basically photorealistic but they are heavily blurred on any streaming version of this video no matter how high a quality they claim the video is.

- Small lighting details were also lost with compression. Towards the end of the demo when Nate uses the rope to flee his enemies take a look at the leaves at his feet. You'll notice how each individual leaf on every single plant is correctly receiving the sunlight. In previous generations foliage often didn't receive light or cast shadows at all, and even in the super impressive The Vanishing of Ethan Carter many elements of the foliage were just fancy alpha effects with a lot of crazy blending. But these leaves are full 3D models and the way the light bounces off of the leaves is just stunningly realistic. Think about how when the sun hits a leaf the leaf almost shimmers as the individual crevices in the leaf reflect and refract the light in subtly different ways. When your leaves are just a moving 2D image it can't have crevices and therefore the light cannot accurately bounce off the leaves as it would in real life. But in this demo the light does in fact correctly bounce off each individual leaf, showing that not only are the leaves 3D objects, but are either tessellated or textured in a way that allows the light to take into account depth based on texture opacity or something to that effect. It's another tiny detail but it makes the jungle look borderline photorealistic at times.

- In the last generation games, Nate's shirt would become dirty over time but this was basically a texture swap. It didn't actually change the physical makeup of the shirt and because it was a texture the dirt appeared in preset locations. After Nate slides down a hill of mud late in the demo you can see that his shirt has actual mud on it. Not a texture swap where it now has a brown texture. No this was actual mud that was attached onto his shirt, not part of the shirt itself, and that mud changed how the light reflected off of Nate, proving that Naughty Dog is using an incredibly advanced physically based lighting system more impressive than anything I have seen thus far this generation.

- There were a ton of other minor incidental details you missed in the low quality video. At the very end of the video as the rocks are sliding, Nate grabs onto the top of the cliff and as his hands scrape along the ground trying to get a good grasp, individual pebbles are pulled out of the ground that have fully modeled physics that correctly react to Nate's hands. There are a ton of tiny little things like that which show just how far reaching Naughty Dog's attention to detail goes and how much of a disservice streaming video does to this game.

While full quality videos aren't going to enhance every single current gen game they really are going to be required to appreciate the detail in more and more games. If you really think about it, it's as if you are watching a DVD quality video of a blu-ray quality game. Just like a DVD won't give you all the detail captured by the latest professional cameras, these streaming videos aren't going to give you all the quality allowed by the latest game consoles and PC's. So if you hear your friends bashing the quality of the graphics in a game they have only seen a video of, make sure to ask them if they watched the full quality version or the streamed version. And if you are trying to compare graphics between different versions of a game using a streaming video just stop. Digital Foundry has full quality, uncompressed captures of all the games it examines available for download. If you don't have the bandwidth to download these videos, at the very least hold your judgement as, more and more, judging a game based on compressed videos is doing them a major disservice.

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My Top 20 Games of Last Generation (11-20)

Around this time last year quite a few people (and publications) were creating lists of their top games of last generation. It was something I wanted to get in on but as I started hashing out a list, I realized that there were just too many games I hadn't played to give the previous generation a fair shake. So I decided that instead of spending money I didn't have on a new console with barely any games (and none really worth playing) I would spend the next 12 months playing through the last gen games I missed. Well, it turned out that was easier said than done considering my list of missed games consisted almost exclusively of open world sandboxes and JRPG's. Still I managed to play Saint's Row 3 and 4, Batman Arkham City and Origins, Sleeping Dogs, Infamous 2 and Festival of Blood, and Kingdoms of Amalur through to completion by this point. I also gave JRPG's Final Fantasy 13, Demon's Souls, Ni No Kuni, and Dragon's Dogma each at least 30 hours of my time. And currently I am trying to play through Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed Revelations, with Blood Dragon and AC3 still on the way. The only games I really wanted to play by now but didn't have a chance to at all were the Dark Souls games. And I also will openly admit to having not played any of the Xbox 360 Forza games. Lastly, I never purchased a Wii and I have no intention of ever doing so, so sorry Mario Galaxy but you aren't on the list. Other than that I think I have given the last generation a fair shake. I'm sure I've missed a handful of worthwhile titles but I'm only one man so sorry if I missed your personal favorite.

A couple ground rules before I start. This is a list of console games. So no handheld or mobile games, and no PC exclusives. Current gen games with last gen versions I'm also choosing to ignore. Also HD remakes don't count although if you really want some bang for your buck that complete God of War collection has a ton of quality content for not a lot of money. I'm going to do this list in two parts just to keep the length down so check back in a couple of days for part two.

For the top 10 I plan on listing them in order. For these entries, though, I'm just going to give them to you in alphabetical order because really who cares which game is 17 vs 18? It will just waste my time and cause arguments that no one will be able to win. So without further ado, here are numbers 11-20 (in alphabetical order!) in my top 20 games of last generation.

Bastion

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Supergiant Games

Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive

Bastion is one of those games that has it all. The excellent combat system rewards risk and experimentation. The gorgeous visuals and stunning music create a haunting post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The story itself is a great tale expertly told with dynamic narration that takes into account moment to moment player action. And the great progression and weapon upgrade system, including Halo Skull like items that increase the difficulty while also increasing the possible reward allow players to tailor adjust the game to suit their own play style. It may not be the greatest game of the last generation, but it has no real flaws either. This is a polished title where every system works as promised and lives up to its potential. And it is absolutely worth playing.

The Batman Arkham Trilogy

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Rocksteady

Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive

Yea, I put a whole series as a single game. Sue me. It's my list. Deal with it. Anyways, the Batman games are great for a number of reasons. The combat system is fun and fluid, featuring a surprising amount of depth and complexity for what initially seems like a series of quick time events. But the real brilliance of the series are the stealth sequences. Before Batman, stealth in gaming was about avoiding conflict. You were meant to be a ghost, getting in and out of a facility without being noticed. Batman rewrote the book on game stealth by having you hide so that you could take out opponents more easily, not sneak past them undetected. Never before had a Batman game made you feel so empowered. Watching your opponents lose themselves to terror as you picked off their comrades one by one was one of the great pleasures of last generation. The great stories in all three games only added to the fun, and Arkham City and Origins remain the only real example of an open world game done successfully on the Unreal 3 Engine, making them a very impressive technical showpiece as well. And lastly, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Enough said.

Dishonored

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Arkane Studios

Publisher: Bethesda

It is fair to say that if Dishonored's story had been as good as the rest of the game it would currently be sitting in the top five not the bottom 10 but don't let the mediocre narrative dissuade you from playing this incredible game. While the story itself may not be anything to write home about, the world it takes place in most definitely is. A unique mix of sci-fi and and medieval influences were used in creating one of the most compelling worlds in gaming history. Beset by plague and suffering from political turmoil, the kingdom is in shambles. And it is up to you, the ex-bodyguard of the now dead queen, to set things right by slitting the throats of a bunch of bad dudes. Or not. In fact the element of choice is what makes Dishonored so compelling. Many games claim they will adapt to your preferred play style. Dishonored actually delivers on that claim. You can enter any mission guns blazing, shooting and slashing through the corrupt city guard and aristocracy on your way to a target you can blast to pieces just as easily. Or you could climb to the rooftops of these massive, open, and fully explorable levels, and sneak your way to your target with a mix of parkour and supernatural abilities without alerting a single soul. And once you reach that target you could still stab him or her in the back. Or you could find a non-lethal way to get rid of them, ways that ironically are often far worse than death. Or you could play somewhere in between.

Regardless, the game will react to your behavior. If you are butchering guards and civilians then later levels will feature more and better armed opponents to protect against your massacres. The people will fear you. The plague will worsen. Your allies will question whether or not your success is worth the cost. If you spare the lives of your enemies, on the other hand, security will loosen. The plague will improve. Allies will supply you with better equipment and praise your actions. Few games give you the freedom of Dishonored. All the way from the moment to moment gameplay which lets you defeat opponents with a wide variety of weapons and gadgets, to the expertly designed levels that give you numerous paths to reach your target, to your play style as a whole. It helps that the actual combat, stealth, and platforming feel incredible. The next Mirror's Edge should really look to Dishonored as it is the only first person game I can think of where I always felt entirely in control while jumping around. Great art, sound effect and voice over combine to create a great atmosphere. Really the only downside to this otherwise incredible game is how dull the story and its heroes are. From a gameplay standpoint, though, there are very few better games out there.

Flower

Console: PS3 (And PS4 eventually)

Developer: thatgamecompany

Publisher: Sony

One of the most overused and hyperbolic terms critics use to describe great games is transcendent. There are a lot of great games out there. Few make you feel like you've transcended your physical and emotional limitations and become self-actualized. But for the hour or two you'll spend playing Flower you will really feel like you've had life altering experience. It's combination of gorgeous visuals, enchanting dynamic music and audio, and consequencless gameplay take you to magical place that I can only imagine would be further enhanced with the use of some mind altering drugs(which I am not in any way suggesting you should take). It's a one of a kind piece of interactive art with a story told through the expert use of narrative space (also known as environmental storytelling) over dialogue or even character interaction. That a story so broad and vague can at the same time be so incredibly moving is a testament to the talent of the team at thatgamecompany. Flower is not an example of masterful gameplay or mechanic design, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Jenova Chen and team utilize gameplay in combination with audio and visuals to create a singular experience which is really only rivaled by the team's even better followup.

The Gears of War Trilogy

Console: Xbox 360

Developer: Epic Games

Publisher: Microsoft

Yea, I did it again. My list, my rules. Choosing the best Gears of War game is pointless because each entry has its own highs and lows and you really should play all three. You can safely ignore Judgement. The first Gears holds up the worst but its influence can be felt across the industry to this day. The stop and pop third person shooting it popularized has been endlessly copied, but honestly the Gears series remains better at it than any of the imitators. The Lancer (aka the chainsaw gun) is one of the most satisfying weapons to use in a shooter ever and the visuals turned Epic's Unreal Engine from one of several third party engine players into the dominant industry force used by nearly every publisher on the planet. Meanwhile the sequel added the excellent co-op horde mode while featuring the most diverse campaign of the series. You had everything from giant boss battles, to a survival horror level, to an essentially combat free level inside the body of a giant worm. For my money it is the most enjoyable campaign of the series. And the third entry takes everything to the next level. There is more polish and content in Gears 3 than there has any right to be. After being delayed for over half a year due solely to financial reasons, Epic had plenty of time to polish every aspect of the game to an absolute sheen and pack in an absurd amount of content. You have a vastly expanded horde mode, the new Beast mode, a four person co-op campaign, and an expanded multiplayer suite. And every one of these modes was packed with a breadth of content rarely seen in modern AAA games. On the campaign side, Gears 3 became one of the few games last generations to truly end a story. And despite their status as meat heads, the characters actually manage to display some real emotion by the end of the series. Great combat. Great world. Great visuals. A ton of solid modes and content within them. And numerous innovative mechanics and modes that would become industry standards. That is the Gears legacy, and whether or not you enjoy the series, there is no denying not only its quality, but its importance in defining the last generation of gaming.

Limbo

Console: PS3/360/PC/(and more over time)

Developer: Playdead

Publisher: Playdead

Since the release of Limbo many developers have aped its style. That pervasive sense of dread and despair built through expert use of art, animation, and sound design. But none of the imitators have come close to equaling the work of the original. Limbo is a draining experience. It is truly a disturbing game featuring horrific displays of violence and cruelty. It builds and maintains a tone and an atmosphere better than almost any game out there. But it isn't just the presentation that shines. Limbo also features a variety of clever puzzles that manage to consistently kill you without frustrating. Crafting puzzles that are just the right difficulty is one of the great challenges of game design, and Playdead nails it. Maybe it isn't for everyone, but for any who can stomach its brutality Limbo is the type of game you won't soon forget, with its gripping world and solid puzzles combing to form a truly memorable experience.

Metro 2033

Console: 360/PC

Developer: 4A Games

Publisher(s): THQ/Deep Silver

Here is where I have to sadly admit I haven't played Metro Last Light despite loving the original. I know, shame on me. The first game, though, is brilliant. A lot of shooter fans bash the gunplay in Metro 2033 but I found it surprisingly refreshing. Every bullet counts in Metro, and weapons are taped together remnants of a lost age. They don't work well for obvious reasons. Their poor quality, along with the fact that bullets serve as currency as well as ammunition, subtly drive you to play more conservatively than you would with most shooters. The game builds amazing amounts of tension set in a stunningly realized world. A post-nuclear apocalypse is a common setting for games, but Metro takes it in an interesting direction, setting the game in the Moscow subway where the remnants of the city's population fight over the remaining scraps and form a variety of micro-nations following various political dogmas. It's a fascinating world and a fun one to explore. If you go in to Metro expecting a standard first person shooter you are going to be disappointed. In Metro guns are a last resort and even then firing more than a couple of shots might as well mean failure due to how badly it will tax your very limited resources. Another game that is not for everyone. If you enjoy games that focus on survival and resource management, though, Metro will be right up your alley, and its interesting and well realized world is just icing on the cake.

12. Portal/Orange Box

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Valve

Publisher(s): Valve/EA

I was a bit torn about including The Orange Box as Half Life 2 could be considered something of an HD port, but with 4 of the 5 games having their console debuts, I decided to include it but focus on Portal. Half Life 2 is the best game ever made. If you haven't played it then you should do so. But Half Life 2 came out a year before the Xbox 360 and 2 years before the PS3 so that's all I'm going to say about it. Portal, on the other hand, was first released with The Orange Box and it is an amazing game in its own right. The brilliant portal based puzzles of Portal would put this game among the cleverest puzzle games of all time even without the story around it, but with the story, Portal is elevated from clever puzzler to masterful game. Imagine how hard it must have been to come up with any sort of justification for why a character would be jumping through portals. But the master writers at Valve not only came up with that justification, they somehow turned it into one of the best game stories of all time. The hilarious Glados with the sinister undertones hiding underneath that pleasent exterior is one of the single greatest characters in gaming history. She is your sole companion. Your ally, and eventually, your enemy. For a being without a face who speaks in A Siri like monotone, she somehow has a ton of character. Portal was and still is a fresh departure from both AAA first person shooters and indie-puzzle games. There is nothing else like Portal and that is kind of a shame considering it is one of the best games you will ever play. And that end credits song? So freaking good.

Vanquish

Console: PS3/360

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

I'd tell you about the story of Vanquish but I don't remember it. Considering this is a Platinum game I'm sure it didn't make much sense in the first place. But Platinum games aren't about complex stories or deep characters. They are about brilliant mechanics and Vanquish is no exception. There are two elements of Vanquish that make it so excellent. The first are the rocket boots that let you skate around the environment at incredible speeds. Vanquish is at least in theory a cover based shooter, but unlike any other cover based shooters, sitting behind cover taking pot shots at dumb enemies isn't a viable strategy. Enemies will advance on your position and surround you forcing you to slide across the levels to find new positions constantly. It is an amazingly fun mechanic that turns what by now is a tried genre on its head. The other half of the brilliance that is Vanquish is the weapon upgrade system that creates a risk vs reward strategy of slowly powering up your weapons over time vs the immediate need for more weapons and more ammo. It's an elegant system that creates fun mechanics out of the standard act of picking up the weapons of fallen opponents. Both of these systems take things we rarely think about in shooters and twist them in fun and creative ways. Vanquish may be short. It may have a nonsensical story (or maybe not I don't remember). The voice acting I can confirm is awful, and the visuals are impressive in some ways will underwhelming in others. And if the game has a multiplayer mode I've never seen it. But the mechanics at the core of Vanquish are so enjoyable and so refreshing that it becomes easy to overlook the flaws of this game as numerous or serious as they may be (depending on your perspective). Vanquish may not be the entire package a la Gears of War 3, but it absolutely 100% nails the gameplay, and when it comes down to it, games are all about play and when playing a game is as much fun as in Vanquish, all the rest really doesn't matter.

The Witcher 2

Console: 360/PC

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Publisher(s): CD Projekt Red/Namco Bandai

People are going to tell you that you can skip the first Witcher and just move on to the second. If you really care about the story of this series I wouldn't recommend that. The beauty of The Witcher is that your actions deeply effect the story and playing up to the beginning of The Witcher 2 is key in that. Anyways, The Witcher 2 is one of the best RPG's ever made. It's got an excellent lead character, a dark and complex world, and a level of choice and consequence rarely seen in games. Two aspects of the branching story in The Witcher series makes it so compelling. The first is how choices don't fall into a simple good/bad paradigm. In The Witcher no one is truly good and few are truly evil. At best the actions of a character will be slightly more noble than the actions of an opponent, but both are scumbags. Do you help the terrorist Elves living in exile or the corrupt and oppressive regimes that have forced them to terrorism in the first place? Just like in the real world toppling a corrupt and cruel government doesn't assure that the replacement will be any better. You may think you are doing the right thing any number of times in The Witcher 2, but even your best of intentions are going have unintended and often terrible consequences. Those downtrodden elves will manipulate those gullible individuals into believing the most terrible of stories, only to reveal that in fact they are using you to commit equally horrible crimes. Even Geralt himself is far from a noble hero. He is self serving no matter how you play him. He is a killer, a murderer. And his lovers are sorcerers who are manipulating events from behind the scenes for their own nefarious purposes. Are you better than those you slay or just another player in a massive game of individuals merely trying to survive and improve their own standing in a broken society? In the end that is for you, the player, to decide, but no choice is saintly.

The other aspect of The Witcher 2 that impresses is in how much the game changes depending on your actions. The entire second act (out of 3) of the game is entirely different depending on if you side with the Elves or the Humans. And the game concludes in a variety of drastically different manners depending on your actions leading up to that point. Alongside Dishonored, The Witcher in my mind is the series that most makes good on its promise of changing the game based on our actions as a player. And CD Projekt Red earns a lot of street cred by giving away all the game's DLC for free to everyone, as well as selling the game DRM free. There are a lot of great RPG's on the last generation of consoles, but very few are anywhere near as good or as deep as The Witcher 2.

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New Consoles and Texture Decompression

Last generation both the Xbox 360 and (especially) the PS3 almost never ran into CPU bottlenecks. The CPU of the 360 was comparatively far more powerful than the GPU while on the PS3 the Cell was generations ahead of the weak GPU it was paired with. As the previous generation neared its close, the limits were virtually always issues with limited RAM and GPU power. You had low resolutions, alpha effects running at 15 fps and 480p or less at all times, and a variety of other cost cutting measures designed to limit the pressure on the very limited GPU and RAM capabilities of the previous generation of consoles.

So it is very interesting to see the exact opposite is true this generation. We have consoles running CPU's less powerful than what you would find in some top end smartphones (and definitely far less powerful than what you would find in Microsoft's own Surface tablets), with mid-range GPU's and enthusiast levels of RAM. This year we've seen a handful of games that seem held back not by GPU or RAM limitations, but by CPU limitations, something that never would have been true last generation. While the limited amount of bandwidth on the Xbox One's DDR3 RAM has required developers to scale back the resolution in some games, hitting 60 fps has so far not been a GPU issue but a CPU one. We see this in both of Ubisoft's open world games (Watch_Dogs and Assassin's Creed Unity) as well as Microsoft's own Halo: Master Chief Collection and Bungie's Destiny. One might argue the excessive load times seen in games like Destiny are also a result of CPU limitations.

The issue behind most of this is in the title of the blog, texture decompression. Essentially we have an issue where there is enough RAM to display massive textures in current gen games, even at a distance and in an open world. And the 50 GB of space on a blu-ray disc gives enough room to store those textures, but in a compressed form. The issue is that whenever a game needs to display those textures it needs to decompress them (along with any other compressed assets). Think of it like this. Every time you enter a new level, or a new area within a larger level, in a game, the CPU has to basically take the level out of a Zip file before it can even begin to render it. The bigger the zipped files, and the more heavily compressed they are, the more time it takes to uncompress them. (Note that you aren't actually dealing with Zip files specifically here, I'm just using the term to help those unfamiliar with the concept understand it) The issue that I think many developers this generation are going to have to overcome is how to get those files uncompressed as quickly as possible.

An interesting solution was actually created by Nvidia earlier this year and those with Nvidia graphics cards now don't have to worry about texture decompression because Nvidia now stores decompressed textures in a cache on the hard drive automatically. Remember that a gun on one level uses the same texture on another, so once any object is displayed a single time a cache is created for its texture, meaning the CPU never has to worry about loading it again. The benefits of this can be seen on the PC version of Advanced Warfare. As per Digital Foundry, a top of the line R9 290 AMD GPU will still see frame rates crash down to 30 fps when combined with an i3 CPU. Meanwhile a 750 ti, a card not much more powerful than those in the consoles and only a fraction as powerful as the 290 will only see drops into the mid 40's when combined with the same CPU. Switch over to an i7 CPU and there is no change in the performance of the 750 ti, but the 290 will now never drop below 60 fps. Basically we are seeing major CPU bottlenecks when it comes to texture decompression which Nvidia's texture cache has solved.

Now it is important to note that even a current gen i3 CPU is in many ways far more powerful than the CPU in the consoles. It has far fewer cores but each core is vastly more powerful. Another solution to texture decompression is utilizing modern GPU's compute cores to perform traditionally CPU oriented tasks. Not to blare the Nvidia horn or anything, as AMD GPU's have equally powerful (if not more powerful) compute cores, but Nvidia created its CUDA system solely for this purpose. If you are an AMD GPU owner and wonder why games using IdTech5 (Rage, Wolfenstein The New Order, The Evil Within) run so poorly on your computer, the answer is texture decompression. IdTech5's MegaTextures require significant CPU resources to uncompress as they take up multiple terabytes worth of space in their full resolution versions. So for Nvidia owners, Id created a system that uses CUDA to decompress the textures in conjunction with the CPU. Since owners of AMD graphics cards are more likely to also own AMD CPU's, these people suffer from major performance problems. Since each core on an AMD cpu is less powerful (but there are more total cores than Intel CPU's) it cannot decompress textures as quickly. This is because each level is filled with a single MegaTexture. A single texture decompress operation can only be handled by a single thread of a single CPU, meaning all those additional cores are useless. Without the aid of a GPU performance is going to plummet. Of course even a high powered i7 can't decompress IdTech5 textures at 60 fps.

The point of explaining all this is twofold. The first point is that by solely utilizing AMD components Microsoft and Sony have forced themselves to write their own drivers to solve these problems, or leave it up to individual developers to write software level solutions which simply won't be as fast or efficient. And secondly, it brings up the important point that the Xbox One doesn't even have any dedicated compute cores on its GPU. In combination with the low bandwidth of its RAM that is going to make it incredibly difficult for developers to match the resolution and texture quality of the PS4. Despite that advantage, though, the PS4 still will suffer major CPU bottlenecks. Simply put, the GDDR5 RAM in the PS4 has ridiculous bandwidth which in theory could allow for extremely high resolution textures, geometry, and alpha to be displayed. But even utilizing the Compute Cores on the GPU it will be all but impossible to fill all of those textures at 60 fps.

I have a theory that the current solution to this problem is to have really long load times that decompress far more textures than you might initially need to start the level, but which will reduce the CPU load throughout the rest of the level. It's in fact the exact opposite solution to the one used last generation where developers would load in the bare minimum number of textures and then stream in additional ones as they were needed (hence the texture pop in seen in a lot of last gen games). Because the previous systems were limited by their RAM more than anything else, and because developers very often had excess CPU resources within each frame this solution made a lot of sense. It's the same solution currently used by most smartphone and tablet games. But this solution is just not going to work with current consoles and I think it is why Ubisoft is having so much trouble with its open world games. Note this is only a theory and I don't have any insider knowledge, but this theory does explain a lot of the performance problems of current gen games. Because they are trying to also render all these AI simulations, Ubisoft games are unable to decompress their textures quickly enough. That is leading to both minor stuttering and major framerate drops. To compare, look at Infamous: Second Son. There are far fewer AI's onscreen at any given time. That allowed Sucker Punch to decompress textures far enough in advance to run the game at 60 fps. They also made use of the massive bandwidth to load a ton of textures into the RAM at one time, which limits the number of new textures that need to stream in. But Ubisoft has a ton of RAM wrapped up in displaying dozens (or in Assassin's Creed's case hundreds) of AI onscreen, and also have to account for the limited bandwidth of the RAM on the Xbox one. I have a strong feeling that Ubisoft didn't expect the consoles to have such ridiculously limited CPU's. And I have a feeling that is why they are having so much difficulty hitting even 30 fps on their games. They made engines utilizing the traditional strengths of consoles while accounting for their traditional weaknesses, but the new consoles turned things on their head. They have copious amounts of RAM and decent GPU's but their CPU's are not much more powerful than those found on smartphones.

Surprisingly, even The Master Chief Collection seems to bump into this limitation. While 343 claims that all of the games run at 60 FPS, this is only partially true, especially for Halo 4. When entering a new area the framerate drops pretty close to the original's 30 fps. After 10-30 seconds the framerate will return to 60 fps. Basically what we seem to be seeing is a CPU that is only giving developers 3-4x the performance of 360 one, with a GPU giving them up to 10x the performance. So while they can obviously render each scene at 1080p/60 they are having major trouble loading all of the assets to render in the first place. This also might be what has lead them to insert loading screens into Halo 2 where on the original Xbox there were no load screens after the initial load. Another (confirmed) example of this is Titanfall. The game loads more quickly on the Xbox 360 because only the bare minimum number of textures are being loaded while the rest are streamed in. This leads to texture pop in and framerate wobble when the streaming occurs. On the Xbox One every single asset is loaded into RAM before the level starts. This resolves all of the performance issues related to texture streaming but increases the load times. You can see a similar disparity in Destiny (although the reason for this is unconfirmed), which has quick load times on previous gen consoles combined with heavy streaming and LOD issues, and long load times on current gen consoles but far fewer streaming or LOD issues. It's a fascinating shift, and I hope Sony and Microsoft build in an Nvidia style caching system on the hard drive that helps alleviate the problem.

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Why Making DLC Pre-Release Isn't Bad

So over the course of the past several years I've seen a lot of myths about game development start to go away. This is due to the increase in crowd funding and crowd sourcing through the likes of Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. For example, crazy beliefs about the costs of making a game have been replaced by more informed opinions as people try to understand the business side of things before they put money into a Kickstarter project. Meanwhile the practice of releasing games to the public very early in development has given players a better understanding of how a game evolves over the course of development. All of this is great. Gamers blame developers less for delays, and they can at least understand the reasoning behind why a publisher might either cancel a game or force it to release before it is ready when a developer goes over-budget.

One thing that continues to mystify gamers, though, is the practice of starting the process of making DLC before the core game is finished. There are generally two arguments behind why this practice is bad. First, gamers feel that developers should finish the main game before transferring resources over to DLC, and secondly they think that any DLC announced before a game is released should be ready at the same time as the core game and thus be included with it. Now I want to completely debunk the former theory and at least show why the latter may be wrong in specific cases.

I think the core of this issue comes from a misunderstanding of the development process. Gamers tend to think of a studio as a single entity. But a studio is just a company staffed by game makers of various sorts. Now here is the thing. Different developers have different jobs that need to be done at different points in development. A concept artist, for example, will do much of his or her work in pre-production and early production. Most of the concept art duties are done by the halfway point of development. For most major current gen games that means there is a year or more of development left before the game is done. For a game releasing in November, by E3 of that year (June), production should have largely wrapped up. Games need to be done by September to press the game to disc and ship it around the world. So there are only about three months between E3 and the day the disc needs to go to press. At that point about 70% of the staff has completed either the entirety or the vast majority of their work. Systems designers are likely still balancing things, programmers are squashing bugs and optimizing the code, and artists and level designers will need to fix any issues found during testing, but in the case of those last two fields there is a lot of down time as developers wait to see if there are any problems that need fixing. These two fields also happen to be the two fields required to make most DLC.

During these final couple months level designers and artists need things to do. Remember these people are still getting paid full time, and to keep them on as development winds down they need to be worthwhile. So if you think of game development as a bit like an assembly line, first concept artists are finished with their work. They can then start on drawing up DLC based on a plan set forth by the creative leads at the beginning of development. Then, as more and more art is finished for the core game, modelers and environment artists and so on can then make these new assets. Mind you at this point when they are beginning this process of making assets the core game is likely only three or four months away from being in the hands of gamers. Meanwhile level designers can start making maps or single player levels while the levels from the core game are tested and fine tuned. And systems programmers can begin programming any new systems, again, in between fixing existing problems. And once the game goes off to manufacturing there is still a couple months before the game actually comes out. At this point some developers can work on any patches that need doing, while the others can then work on any design needed for the DLC.

So as you can see, the actual development of the core game isn't hindered in any way by the creation of DLC. The way development works certain developers can be working on the DLC without impacting the development of the core game.

Now for the second, and I think more contentious issue, which is the release of DLC. Now I want to start by saying that if DLC is ready day one then it should be a free download for those who purchase the game. That is just consumer friendly business practices. Understand, though, that just because DLC is ready day one does not mean that it was ready in time for the disc to be pressed and shipped. Remember that is at least a two month long process while uploading some DLC on the Internet is a two hour process. Of course if the DLC is on the disc then that isn't true, but any DLC you have to actually download on day one almost certainly wasn't ready when the disc went to press. So that is why you might in certain cases be required to download content. Again, that content should be included for free with your purchase, but don't make the common mistake of saying that if it was ready to download day one then it should be on the disc, because that is definitely not always the case.

Now for DLC that isn't ready day one, well that obviously can't be included in the game. Now you could say that the game should then be delayed until that DLC is ready, but as I said several paragraphs back, at any point in time a developer needs a project in production and one in pre-production if they want to continue to employ all of their staff. DLC lets them do that before the release of a game when a sequel may not have been greenlit yet. To those who think that three or four months shouldn't be enough to make an entire DLC, you are right. That is why those artists and level designers start on the DLC several months before the core game is finished, and many others start work before the core game is released. Six to eight months is enough time to make most DLC, outside of maybe some very expansive single player content. And, again, as a developer finishes work on one piece of DLC he or she can move on to the next, or be transferred to the next full game the studio is working on. Not everyone is working on the same project at the same time.

So the overall point is that if DLC is not ready day one but is ready a month or two after day one that isn't some sort of conspiracy to steal your money. It is the nature of the development process. Now of course this isn't always the case. There is DLC on the disc that is ready day one and the publisher will still charge money for it. And there are publishers that have different studios work on DLC than those that work on the core game (Activision is famous for doing this with Call of Duty for example), but be aware that in most cases DLC is released as soon as possible.

Hopefully this helps shed some light on the process of making DLC. Enjoy!

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Daikatana

For my third entry in my Old Humble Playthrough blog series I am taking a short break from Hitman to discuss one of the absolute worst games I have ever played. I first played Daikatana around 2000 or so. It was relatively new at the time, but still could be found in bargain bins for under $5. I didn't make it past the first level. It was that bad. So with its inclusion in the Humble Square Enix Bundle I thought I would give it a second chance. I really tried to get through that first level. But every aspect of the game was just so downright unenjoyable that once more I simply gave up.

Before you even get to play you are subjected to a lengthy cutscene that sets up the story. It involves some sort of time travel mumbo jumbo that makes about as little sense as you would expect from a late 90's shooter. Except it takes itself far too seriously. Having a cutscene that seemed to last at least five minutes if not longer and contained no action whatsoever as the opening to your game is just poor design. Once you finally get to play the damn game you find that it might have been better if they stuck with the cutscenes. For one the actual mouse movement just seems off. Maybe this has to do with the game having been tuned for mice made 15 years ago. But no matter how I tuned the speed or sensitivity I just couldn't get it to feel right. I turned off mouse smoothing. I turned on mouse smoothing. Nothing seemed to work. It just felt off. But as I said, that could have less to do with the game and more to do with it being designed for obsolete mouse hardware. But the problems didn't stop there. You start out using some pea shooter ion gun that neither looks nor feels especially powerful. You use it to shoot dragon flies and frogs. It's some of the most mundane combat I can imagine. Soon you are being killed by what seem to be invincible turrets. The game meanwhile has given you no objectives nor any clue what your are supposed to be doing beyond the grand scope of killing some dude who has a really powerful sword.

I might have been able to at least reach the second level if the save system didn't require you to collect crystals for each time you want to save. Sorry, this isn't a survival horror game. This is a first person shooter. Let me save whenever I want or at the very least put checkpoints after every battle. So after having to restart at the beginning of the level for the dozenth time after being randomly killed by something I didn't even see (I honestly don't know what killed me. The game simply said "You failed at life - Game Over" while I was just walking forward) I called it quits. Suffice to say that Daikatana absolutely deserves its place on the various worst games of all time lists. It's not fun. It insults you when you fail to avoid its unavoidable traps. The starting weapon is a weak single shot laster that you use to kill bugs. I really tried my best to at least make it to the second level of this game. But without the prospect of a substantially better experience to drive me forward I decided it just wasn't worth it. If I were you I would avoid this turd of a game at any cost.

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Hitman 2

Continuing on from my blog last week, tonight I continued my playthrough of the Hitman series with Hitman 2. Square Enix was nice enough to include Contracts and Blood Money in the update to the Humble Bundle today, so now I am the owner of every Hitman game. Hitman 2 sees some major changes from the first game, almost all for the better. The original Hitman had no mid-mission saving regardless of difficulty, an insane control scheme that bordered on completely broken even with extensive fiddling, and a scoring system that made many victories anything but. The sequel fixes every one of the these issues and generally improves on the first game in just about every conceivable manner.

In Hitman 2 the titular assassin actually controls like you would expect. You can now hold down a key to run instead of having two different keys for run and walk. Switching between weapons is much easier and quicker, as is interacting with objects. From top to bottom the control scheme has been entirely reworked and it is a vast improvement. Also new is the ability to save your game mid-mission a limited number of times. The money system from the previous entry that punished you for your sloppy play doesn't seem to have carried over from what I can tell. I appreciate not having to worry quite so much about my methods, but as far as I can tell there doesn't seem to be any reward for getting through a level without killing someone.

The improvements to the controls also mean that it is now possible to shoot your way through some parts of levels, whereas before getting seen meant you might as well just restart. Visually the game is a marked improvement over the previous entry although I had to download a mod to get the game to work on my computer. Overall, though, while I simply couldn't enjoy the first Hitman in any way, I found myself liking the second game a lot more. I likely won't play the game through to completion. It was okay, but still not that fun, but for those who enjoy stealth games more than I do, Hitman 2 holds up well over a decade later.

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Hitman

So over the past year or two I have begun to amass a pretty staggering collection of games at least a decade old. These games usually come as part of bundle including newer titles or other old titles I have fond memories of. Thanks to the Humble Bundle among others I have grown a collection so large that I will likely never play through the entirety of any of these games. But I want to give them a chance. At least say I tried playing some of these games, even if in the end I don't finish them. And the only way I am going to stick with a mission like that will be if I write a blog about my experiences. Now I could begin with any of a handful of games but I thought I would start with my most recent pickup, the Humble Square Enix Bundle. I have played at least portions of Deus Ex and its sequel in the past so I thought I would start with the Hitman games. I have played Absolution but never any of the earlier titles. So I decided to start at the beginning and tonight I played Hitman: Codename 47.

Hitman was first released in 2000, making it almost 15 years old. While certain aspects of it are quite impressive for a 15 year old game, others have aged about as poorly as all natural grapefruit juice left out in the Sahara Desert. The controls were the very first indication that this game came from another era. By default I was supposed to use the number pad to control Agent 47. Even switching to the default ASDW option required a ton of fiddling. In Hitman hitting W runs while hitting S walks forward. D and A perform tank turns as if this was some bad PS1 horror game. Z and X are your default strafing keys. Reloading your weapon requires you to hit 1. F drops whatever you are carrying and the spacebar is used to interact. After changing virtually every control option to something I could at least kind of use I realized that because walk and run were separate keys I was not going to be able to map things to standard controls. I eventually put walk on Q so that I could quickly switch between a walk and a run as needed.

Luckily the AI didn't seem to mind if I ran through the levels, and there are as far as I can tell no non-lethal ways to take out opponents. So while I could sneak up behind an enemy, it doesn't seem to change anything if I shoot him in the back. So I mostly just run. The other half of the coin is that this is one of those old stealth games where getting seen might not automatically fail you (or it might depending on the level) but continuing on will likely be more of a chore than starting over. Hitman takes things a step further than most other stealth games in that each person you kill deducts from your total payment for the mission. And you have to pay for every piece of equipment you bring into a mission. So it is possible to "beat" a level but earn no money for it, meaning you might start the next level with nothing but the clothes on your back. Unlike newer entries in the series which have items you can pick up within each level to perform kills, in this original game there are very few objects you can interact with in the environment. Since you can't use your fists to take down enemies, at this point you are basically screwed and might as well just replay the previous level. Possibly even worse is when the deductions end up being higher than your earnings. At that point the game will tell you that you have failed the mission. That would of course be after you completed the entire mission, not when you actually hit the fail state.

Now many purists will tell me, and probably rightly so, that this is a stealth game and if I am having these problems then I am not playing the game well. And I will absolutely agree with those people. But this is a game where there are no mid-mission checkpoints. You can revive once or twice if you die but that doesn't reset any of the actions you have taken. Some of these missions can border on being an hour long on your first time through. The current mission I'm on involves assassinating a Triad leader. The mission has several different components that each require you to perform several steps to complete them. The problem is that if you die after completing 3/4 of the components you are still sent all the way back to the beginning of the mission. And you then have to go through half an hour of content you have already played just to get back to the spot you failed on before. And being an old stealth game built around trial and error, you are almost as likely to make another error at the same spot and have to do everything again before you figure out what the game actually wants you to do. And you have to go through this every step of the way. The game wants to support experimentation but I find myself just using tried and true methods because a single mistake could have me going through half an hour or more of the level again. And those tried and true methods usually include shooting a guard that might see me and taking his clothes. It's a safer method than trying to just sneak around. So, no, I am not playing the game well, but I don't have time to play each mission in this game dozens of times to get it right so screw the purists.

If you can manage to get through the incredibly frustrating mission structure you'll find some decent ideas that have of course been since improved upon by the later entries in the series. And the visuals are pretty impressive for a game this old. The AI has problems but compared to what AI was doing in other games in 2000 it is pretty impressive stuff. Mainly, though, Hitman feels like the first entry in the series that it is. Everything works but it also all needs to be expanded upon. As such Hitman is an interesting look at an early attempt at the stealth genre but is not something I could find enjoyable as a game 15 years later.

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Season Pass Ruins Balance?

One of my only issues with the first Bioshock was how easy it was. Even on the hardest difficulty the Vita-chambers meant that you could brute force your way through any battle in the game. And on the easy or normal difficulty it was likely that you would never even need to make use of them in the first place. One of the few things I thought Infinite did better than the first game was its combat. While none of the enemies were as fun to fight as the big daddies, even the weaker enemies could take you down if you were careless enough on the default difficulty. It wasn't a hard game by any means but I found myself back in Booker's office at least once or twice each level while that final battle took me something like an hour to get through. Step forward a year and I finally got the season pass on the Steam sale. I decided that instead of jumping straight into the Burial at Sea stuff I would replay the main game to remind myself of all the complicated elements of the story and also to pick up the audio diaries I missed the first time around. I didn't even realize that the season pass included a bunch of bonus items for the core game until I started. Suddenly I had five infusions, four pieces of gear, and two super-powered weapons in my arsenal. Now I am used to games ruining their balance with pre-order DLC. But usually the pre-order stuff will help you for a level or two before you get better stuff. This was the case with three of the pieces of gear, but the fourth piece gave you a ridiculous 75% increase in ammo for every weapon. Combined with the over powered machine gun I managed to take out even Handy Men with ease using that starting gun (upgraded over time of course) from beginning to end of game. The 5 infusions were maybe even more of a balance issue. There are a limited number of infusions in the game. I got the achievement for getting every one of them and including the 5 bonus ones I was ranked at 9/10 on health, salts, and shields. What that means is that you are getting a significant bonus with those 5 infusions. Again, using the handy men as an example, I was able to beat every one of them by just standing in place and firing at them until they died. I could survive a one on one firefight with the George Washington lookalikes, again without moving. I had just so much health and such a strong shield that nothing could take me down.

That final battle which previously took me an hour? I beat it in a single try and never even had to have Elizabeth summon any health packs for me. Now obviously playing a second time meant I knew more of the vigor combinations and what vigors worked well against what enemies, but that shouldn't have let me beat the entire game without dying a single time. Only once was I even downed (Elizabeth saved me) when under fire from a handy man, two of the George Washington dudes, and like a dozen other opponents. I am also not especially good at shooters. I tend to play Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo on easy and die quite a few times per level. And I am rarely within the top 50% of players in a multiplayer match in any online shooter. So I'm no savant or anything. I'm honestly pretty bad. I was just shocked at how the combination of 5 infusions and a 75% ammo bonus made a game I felt was generally well balanced (and quite hard at the end) suddenly a cakewalk.

I guess I should note that as I said I did get every infusion in the game, and also attempted to collect all of the money I could find so I was about as upgraded as I could have been by the end of the game and, again, knowing what vigors were most effective meant that I didn't waste any money on upgrading vigors I knew I wasn't going to use, and quickly upgraded the ones I knew would be most useful, but that alone shouldn't have made that massive of a difference.

So my question to you guys is: Did any of you play through the game both with and without the season pass bonus content? Did the season pass stuff make the game super easy for you? Or did knowing what vigors to use and what vigor upgrades were important make that much of a difference for me?

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Anime Films For Anime Haters

So I was watching the One Piece quick look yesterday and I noticed both Dan and Jeff making many of the sweeping generalizations I often hear from people whose experience with anime doesn't extend far beyond the 500+ episode shows generally localized by Viz Media. The problem is that Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, Inyuasha, and the various Mech focused anime such as the Bandai made Gundam don't in any way represent the entirety of the medium. In a way it is similar to what non-gamers do when they assume all games are violent murder fantasies like GTA or Call of Duty. I think most people here can name plenty of games that would disprove that belief, but there are many more casual anime fans who want to convince friends to give the medium a chance, but maybe don't have much more experience beyond the shows I just mentioned. Many people point to the films of Hayao Miyazaki when trying to get people into anime, but most of his films are distinctly Japanese and reference Japanese folklore in a way that manages to alienate those who are going into an anime expecting to hate it.

So I challenged myself to come up with a list of anime films that would convince your Otaku hating friends to give anime a chance. I ended up not doing any shows simply because I just couldn't think of any decent shows that didn't at least somewhat feel like what an anime hater would envision an anime show to be. So to be clear, this isn't a list of the best anime out there(although I would include a couple of these films on such a list). It's a list of the best anime that follows none of your standard anime tropes. You'll find no mechs, ninjas, Japanese folklore, or complex sci-fi here. None of the characters in the films listed here have ridiculous proportions beyond the realm of belief. All romances are at least no less realistic than what you would find in an American film. It is exceptionally tough to find anime starring adults. Virtually all of it involves teens in some form or another, and that is even more true when you leave behind the combat focused anime that so many view as the only form of anime out there. So, yes, this list does in fact include quite a few teen focused stories, but I managed to include a handful of films focused on adults as well. I'm going to split these into a couple of genres so you can easily choose a film that will appeal to that anime hating friend of yours. So here we go.

TEEN ROMANCE

The following films involve teens getting their romance on. While these films don't feature explicit sex or nudity, there are some more sexual scenes that those not used to non-American animation might be surprised to see. I'll try to note those films as they come up.

1. Whisper of the Heart

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô

Summary: This mid 90's Studio Ghibli film was one of the first not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takhata. It is a pure romance involving a girl who connects with a young man through their shared love of books. She learns that he has been checking out every book she has read and being a girl in a romance movie finds this notion romantic not creepy and goes in search of her true love. Features some great American songs including heavy use of John Denver's Take Me Home. A little bit of mysterious fantasy stuff but nothing at all far fetched. This is your standard teen romance film. Well done and occasionally moving and funny. Full American dub is available in the US through the Disney import and is of decent quality. Nothing exceptional, but far better than what you might normally see in Anime. Kondo tragically died after making this film. It is his only film as a director and absolutely worth showing your The Notebook loving girlfriend.

2. The Secret World of Arrietty

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: This film is based on the classic British children's book The Borrowers and tells the tale of a family of pocket sized people living beneath a farm inhabited by a normal sized family. As it so happens the daughter of the small people (called borrowers as they get their home and food by taking the tiny things that the normal sized people won't miss) is a teenager of similar age to the son of the human family. Despite her parents telling her to stay hidden, the daughter doesn't listen and soon the two teens are in love despite the impossibility of any sort of physical romance occurring. This film features absolutely stunning art and animation that has a distinctly British flare. Both an American and British accented dub are available, with Disney doing the American version which includes several big name actors like Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. The dub is solid and the British origins of the story means that it manages to be a bit fantastical but in a way that Westerners should easily relate to. And, again, I can't compliment the absolutely incredible art and animation at work here enough. For those who like a dose of fantasy with their romance.

3. From Up on Poppy Hill

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Summary: The last Ghibli film for this category (any again not directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata) is a bit more somber of a romance. It takes place shortly after the end of World War 2 and involves a girl whose father died during the war. She lives in a small seaside town and ends up falling in love with the most popular boy at school. Said boy runs the school paper and is also leading the school clubs in trying to save their clubhouse from demolition. I wrote a review of this film which you can read here if you would like more detail. This film is quite well dubbed and acted. It is the only Ghibli film of these three not released by Disney in the US. The honor there went to GKIDS, a distributor any fan of animation should become familiar with thanks to their excellent US releases of foreign animation too mature for Disney to want to touch. For those who want a great plot beyond the romance or who have high school nostalgia.

4. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Studio: Mad House

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Summary: Based on an acclaimed Japanese young adult novel, this film is not quite as good as the Ghibli films above and should maybe be used as a follow up film after those Ghibli films for teen romance lovers. It is about a girl who can quite literally leap through time and the relationship she forms with a fellow time traveler (that may be a spoiler. I can't remember when we discover that so maybe don't tell your friend that part). It's a sweet romance with writing that maybe isn't quite up to Miyazaki standards (he wrote the three films above despite not directing them) but still well done overall. Great music is the highlight of the presentation which again isn't up to Ghibli standards but is still quite solid. The film was released by Bandai in the US. It features their usual crappy packaging and lack of extras. The film is great but maybe a rental would be smarter than a purchase.

ADULT ROMANCE

The following films are romances featuring people older than 20 and have a more mature and layered tone in general.

1. 5 Centimeters Per Second

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This romance follows a couple over the course of several decades as they drift together and apart. The title is in reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall and as is typical for a Shinkai film, this film involves the effects of time and distance on a couple. Unlike Shinkai's other films which mix romance with fantasy or sci-fi, 5 Centimeters Per Second is set in modern day Japan. It's maybe the most visually impressive film on this entire list. Shinkai is a master background artist, and his work here is as stunning as usual. Character work isn't as solid, but there is great music and a solid dub. This is another Bandai joint, so I would again maybe suggest a rental for this. It's a great film, though.

2. Only Yesterday (Europe, Australia, and Asia Only)

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film, which has sadly never seen an official US release is a fantastic late-bloomer coming of age story from Ghibli master Isao Takahata. While his films are far from your standard anime, most focus very heavily on Japanese folklore or pop culture, making them difficult for those outside of Japan to understand. This film, though, is a romance about a woman in her 30's who goes on a summer vacation to the countryside. A city dweller, she ends up finding herself in the peaceful farmlands and also manages to find love. It's truly tragic that Disney won't release this film (or at least surrender the rights so someone else can) as it is an incredible piece that is distinctly Takahata and distinctly unlike the films of any other anime director out there. There is a British dub for those who don't mind importing but note that this film does contain nudity. It is not sexual in nature (it is a bath scene featuring a child) but, again, for Americans any sort of adult content in an animated film can be a bit of a shock so be prepared for that.

Drama

The following films don't involve romance at all. They are simply real world dramas.

1. Tokyo Godfathers

Studio: Mad House

Director: Satoshi Kon

Summary: Before losing a battle with cancer, Satoshi Kon made some of the most unique and fascinating anime out there. This film is maybe the most unique of the bunch but also the most approachable. It is about three homeless friends who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The friends include a transvestite who immediately wants to mother the child. The three form an unlikely family and protect the child. For parents with open views about sexuality (the transvestite also suffers from AIDS) this film is actually pretty family friendly and ends with a great message about Christmas spirit and about how God views all of us as his children, despite sexual orientation. It's truly a great film that feels like it could have been made in Europe. For those who want something completely out of left field that will convince even the most cynical that anime has a range larger than combat and terrible teen romances. Highly recommended. Features a great dub and was released by Sony in the US.

I'm not going to put it here as it is a little too strange for this list, but once you have your friend indoctrinated you might want to follow some of these films with Kon's excellent film Perfect Blue. It's a murder mystery that is a little too obtuse to be a first foray into anime but is absolutely worth watching.

2. Grave of the Fireflies

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: It's fitting that the only director with two films on this list is one of the most unique directors in anime history. With films unlike any others, Takahata uses animation to express his concerns with Japanese society and nowhere does he do it better than in the devastating Grave of the Fireflies. If your friend loves dark, tragic war drama than this film is for him or her. It's about two children orphaned during a fire bombing of their village towards the end of World War II. It's maybe the most powerful cartoon ever made. Roger Ebert claimed it also was the greatest war film of all time. It's truly mesmerizing and packs a greater punch than most any other war movie out there. For those art house cinema buffs you know who consider anime trash show them this and then ask them what they think of anime. It is a masterpiece and not only one of the greatest anime ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made no qualifiers needed.

Upcoming

So you've gone through this list and are looking for more? I wanted to highlight three films that have yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US(and one I just haven't had a chance to see)

1. The Wind Rises

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Summary: I couldn't end this list without at least mentioning a Miyazaki film, and his latest film is probably the most approachable for the non-anime fan. It's a true story about the man who designed Japan's fighter planes during World War II. It mixes this drama with romance and Miyazaki's usual dose of social commentary. I have yet to see the film so I can't comment personally on its quality, but the film got an Academy Award nomination, and was awarded at numerous film festivals and year end award shows throughout the world. It will be out on DVD shortly.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film is based on a classic Japanese folktale and I couldn't tell you how easy it will be for westerners to understand as it has only recently been released in Japan. I wanted to highlight it because instead of your standard anime art style the film instead attempts to mimic the look of classic Japanese paintings. This is absolutely not the place to start, but for those who think anime has only a single art style I have a feeling this film will at least be a bit more approachable than Takahata's My Neighbors The Yamadas which also looks nothing like your standard anime but makes virtually no sense to anyone outside of Japan.

3. Garden of Words

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This film has been released in the US I just haven't had a chance to watch it yet. It is a romance between a young man and an older woman. He is an apprentice shoemaker and in standard Shinkai form time and distance both draw the lovers together and threaten to separate them. Unlike most other directors on this list Shinkai does not have a flawless track record. His films are just as often duds as they are great. So view this at your own risk.

4. When Marnie Was There

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: And we'll end with a film not even released in Japan yet. It's a ghost story based on a British novel and that is about all I know about it. So look forward to knowing more about that.

And that brings us to a close! Hope this helps you find an anime film for that anime hating special someone in your life.

EDIT: Edited to fix some grammar and spelling errors.

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A Honest To God Good Piece of Internet Journalism

It's exceptionally rare to see well written articles on the Internet these days. Even major news outlets seem to hire staff based far more on their on camera persona than for their writing abilities. It's saddening to go onto supposedly reputable news sources and see articles more akin to a Buzzfeed list than an actual thought out piece of writing. I love Giantbomb, and the editors here are great, but it feels more and more as if this site is becoming part of a shrinking oasis in a desert of shoddy journalism that extends to every subject matter. Far too often I see articles filled with grammar errors, typos, and half formed sentences. And more and more I read articles that 20 years ago wouldn't get you through a High School English class much less get you hired at a international news organization. So it sadly shocks me more with each passing day when I see an article so impeccably written, insightful, and powerful that I actually care to look up the other works of the author. Today I read one of those increasingly rare articles and I've been trying to share it with as many people as possible and while it isn't directly related to games, it is related to social media and the effects of technology on relationships, so I thought it was relevant enough to share. Plus it is just so damn good and something that I think will hit far too close to home to any number of millennial. So only read if you are willing to cry at a piece of Internet journalism, but know that this is one of those rare writings on the Internet that remind you just how great writing can be.

So without further ado I present for your reading pleasure

She's Still Dying on Facebook.

Enjoy it or not as you wish.

EDIT: Link is now a link again. Dunno what happened there.

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