Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Quality Test - Planetside 2 and 'Ultra' Settings (1080p Video), Screenshots

Although I am still working on a First Impressions for this game, I am just having waaay too much fun playing and testing out different settings on it. For those who don't know, Planetside 2 is a Free-To-Play MMOFPS (massively multiplayer online first person shooter) and is available on Steam for easy install and login.

Now, when I first tried playing the game, it sometimes got sluggish and choppy, even though my system isn't 'old' yet, with a 6-core AMD CPU and a Radeon HD 6870. So, being a computer technician, I got down to [having fun] troubleshooting..

The first thing I noticed is that larger fights lagged out the game more. Defending a little outpost with a dozen or so people running around, the game flew at 60fps; but in a large Bio-dome 3-faction battle with what must have been a hundred players tearing about, my frames per second dropped below 30 quite often.

What do you do in this case? That's right, lower the graphic settings. In an OPTIONS or SETTINGS menu (as it is in this game) you can usually find Video settings that you can lower or disable, to help the game perform better, by telling your videocard, "don't do this... or that". The funny thing is, putting it on Medium and then Low, made no difference whatsoever.

What does that mean? In case you didn't know, that means that it is not your videocard that is getting overworked. If running on Low settings with no special effects, the game is sluggish and turning everything up to High with all the bells and whistles, the game is just sluggy (yes I make up words), it is not your videocards' fault. Don't send it to it's room just yet.

What is happening then, is that somewhere else there is a limitation of some sort. Loading models/polygons/effects and other things as you move, the hard drive has to feed data to be displayed. My hard drive light wasn't going on much (I defragment often), so it must have been something else. My RAM tested out ok, so what's next? That's right, the CPU. Looking at the performance of my 'main-brain' processor as the game ran, showed it didn't really overuse it either though, only about 20-60% at most. It also didn't use more than about 1.5GB of RAM, so it must be running in 32-bit address space (if your head got 'swimmy' at that last couple sentences, it means the game didn't tire out my computer very much).

Now I don't want to point fingers without really knowing, but the testing suggests that there is possible CPU optimization problems, either within my system, or on the server systems (and possibly some data communication issues). After doing a little research into what I found was a large number of people having problems, I read that the developers have promised some sort of optimization patches over the next while. Great! I see already, whenever I load the game, that there are little hotfixes and patches coming down the pipe. A good sign of good treatment for the game, hopefully.

Looking around some more, I also found there was an 'Ultra' graphics setting in the Beta (I have been in many but I was not in this game's Beta phase) that was taken out. I assume this is to limit the work put onto players' systems and appeal to a wider audience of older hardware owners. However, it was still somewhat usable now, as long as you didn't mind doing some text editing of a settings file in the game's folder. Of course, I had to test it out!

What was essentially an uploaded text file with no Creditation (it just says Uploaded By: A Guest), what it contained were some settings such as turning up Draw Distance and Lighting Quality, by setting it to a higher number than the game normally does (the game's HIGH setting seems to be '3' and this text file was suggesting '5' in many places). Trying it out, some screenshots of the result are right here:

This wasn't taken with Ultra settings (I was running on High at the time), but 
I liked this shot from the BioLab atrium and wanted to share it, it's my wallpaper at the moment:

The problem was, these Ultra settings didn't really help the lag/sluggish gameplay I was experiencing, although it made it look spectacular. Since the issue of the sluggishness seemed to possibly be tied to CPU optimizations, I further changed the settings on my own, lowering ones that taxed/used the CPU more - and lo' and behold, what I ended up with was a nice, smooth, excitement-adding(!) gameplay performance - from a batch of settings that I now want to share with everyone else!

The [what seems to be] original "Ultra Config" settings are found here:
^ That is a website where people can upload and share text files and you can simply save it as the text file it is and rename it UserOptions.ini and put it in your
<whatever drive steam is on>//ProgramFiles/Steam/steamapps/common/PlanetSide2
folder. (Make a backup copy of the original if you want)

Since those settings resulted in great-looking graphics, I wanted to keep most of it, but simply changed some of the more CPU-utilizing effects. My changes were all under the section Rendering (you can just copy and paste this 'Rendering' section over your 'Rendering' section in your UserOptions.ini if you want to):

* Update: we have put our own Pastebin text file of the entire UserOptions.ini up here (simply save it/rename it to UserOptions.ini): http://pastebin.com/6j9aHVav

** For even more performance while still looking nice overall, try inserting these settings, most of which release even more CPU demand from the game:
RenderDistance=1000.000000, FogShadowsEnable=0, EffectsQuality=2, ParticleQuality=2, ParticleLOD=2

As you can see, most of the textures, complexity and other effects are up, but I lowered a few things like the terrain and shadows (these seemed to use the CPU quite a bit) and the draw distance, which still looks good at "2000". With these settings, I now had a much smoother, still-pretty result! Recording some gameplay as a test of both the new settings and showing the increase in performance, here is few couple minutes of playing as a Medic and Engineer with the settings above:

Recorded with Bandicam Licensed Version at 1920x1080p, 'Default' setting (MPEG-1 Quality 80 VBR)
playing Planetside 2, a free-to-play MMOFPS

That was just a simple pasting of some short tests together, taken in a time of low light/at night and then during the daytime when I went and found some BioLab fighting (which is usually a site of sluggish performance for most people, I know it was for me) where there are many other soldiers around. It shows an example of  the lighting, effects and clarity of the textures, both inside and outside (except for one or two that seemed to be 'stuck' at low resolution) that you can get with these Ultra settings - as well as the smoothness of gameplay that you can even have with my tweaks to them! If you want to make sure the game doesn't change them back (or you don't by accident), make the file Read-Only.

I'm not the greatest player, but I enjoy playing a Medic and Engineer, helping support my team. In the video, you get to see some Healing and Repairing and the Engineer's Turret that he can construct (and then only he can use it) and my Friendly Fire Warning I got using Claymores (if anyone on your team is too close when it goes off after detecting an enemy they get hurt too). You actually get three or four Warnings, but people were standing in front of my Clays a lot when they took out enemies and then you can see my shooting in the back a little in a firefight at the door there, as we all ran in and around it...don't worry it's not easy to get Weapon Locked. If you get a few warnings, just watch out for other people (sometimes you can't help what they do) or even move to a less busy area or just Repair and Heal people for a while.

Hopefully these tweaks will help some of you out there. It's sad to have such a great game with such a large-feeling scope of battle have so many people upset and frustrated that it's too laggy or sluggish and having those people give up or leave or think the game isn't good at all. Don't forget the promise/rumors of further tweaks and optimizations coming out soon, too. Since I can honestly say it helped my bad performance problem, I can honestly say that it should help you, if you are experiencing low fps in your gameplay - and it will look great! If anyone is still having sluggish gameplay, let me know and I can try tweaking the settings a little more to squeeze more out of it and see what happens. Whether you have to turn everything down, or if you can run it full blast, or with these tweaks, I hope you can enjoy the game eventually, and that these tweaks helped some of you at least a little bit.

*** By the way, for those worried about SOE's stance on modifying game files, etc. their Official Statement on client modification is here:
"The most simple guidance here is do not use third party programs which change the Planetside 2 gameplay in any way unless it has been specifically cleared by SOE.
The above does not apply to user initiated *.INI changes, those are allowed, although setting your own options incorrectly can result in bugs."

So they are mainly talking about hacks like aimbots, memory injectors like Cheat Engine, etc.
Thankfully, merely changing how it is displayed on your own screen (as we are doing here) is O.K. Just don't set any of the settings 'too high' or you can cause problems (they call them bugs) such as corrupted display, really really laggy gameplay, and so on (don't worry, you won't hurt your hardware, the game will just crash or something similar). Thanks for letting us tweak the video options, SOE!
NOTE: When experimenting with these changes, please remember that any problems arising from them should not be added to the already heavy load of Sony Online Entertainment's Technical Support Department. Please 'reset' any modifications by deleting the UserOptions.ini file and then after further troubleshooting, bring PS2 problems to the attention of SOE and their staff. Thanks  

Also.. there seems to be a problem with long play sessions, the game gets more and more sluggish for many people. It has been suggested that is is possibly a Memory Leak problem and for now, to restart (the game and/or your system) after a long battle, so that the next one will possibly have less problems. Hopefully this isn't an issue for everyone.

[Update: Testing these settings with an NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti and then with two GTX 560 Ti's in SLI mode, there was near nil increase in performance when switching to SLI. It seems that the bottleneck truly is within the CPU optimizations.
As a sidenote, I was getting about 30fps on average with the NVIDIA cards in my system (even in SLI) and was getting about 40fps on average with the AMD/ATi card in the same system. This is normal however, as some games perform slightly better with one than the other (as the coders develop the game on one or the other/company optimizations/etc. Something could be said for AMD doing some optimizations between the videocard and the CPU when an AMD GPU is coupled with an AMD CPU in the same system, but as I do not work for the company, I do not know.. it does make sense however).]

Personal Notes/Opinions:

At the time of this posting, the game seems to have a lot of aliasing (in my opinion), even at 1080p or higher resolutions. If you want to enable AA, you can do so by forcing it in your videocard's Control Panel. FXAA (NVIDIA) and MLAA (Morphological, AMD/ATi) are both versions of post-processing that should work and be visible in the game [I tested it with AMD's MLAA, the difference is visible]. 
Note that these post-processing AA techniques may not be able to be captured in screenshots and game recordings (Fraps, Bandicam, Dxtory, Playclaw, etc) although the effects may be visible while playing the game [in some games processing such as SweetFX can be capped, some can't].
As per SOE's Official Statement and replies, use of SweetFX is NOT suggested as it is still in the category of utilities that can result in being banned:

See you in the game!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Planetside 2: First Play Game Tips, Quick Edition (Text Only)

For those who don't know, Planetside 2 is a fantastic MMOFPS with a huge scope of things to do and it is out of Beta and available on Steam, Free-To-Play. A First Impressions article is on the way Someday™ with loads of info and screenshots that I have been collecting; but for now here are some quick tips for people new to the game to help you out with your first days playing.

A quick summary of the differences between the three factions is below, then some helpful tips [that aren't immediately obvious or perhaps not explained in the tutorial videos very well]:

The Vanu Sovreignity is a cultish, technology-worshipping faction of transhumanists that use ancient alien technology and look to find more and exploit it further. They use 'futuristic' alien-influenced looking armor and weapons and enjoy listening to euro-techno (it plays in menus and when you die, take a base, etc). Compared to the other factions, their weapons do middle-of-the-road damage, but are the fastest reloading and have no drop-off due to the fact they are laser-based (tank projectiles have some). Vanu don't ask for ammo, they yell "Do you have any batteries?" (which also means if you aren't Vanu and you hear this, you know where some Vanu are).

The New Congolmerate are a group of separatists and rebels that think any ruling group will be oppressive and are out fighting all other factions in the henhouse. Their weapons are somewhat 'low-tech' when compared to the others, with the slowest firing rate and longest reload time (they have the only snipers that start out with slower bolt-action rifles), but they put the 'big-block-engines' in 'em and they have the highest damage out of all the factions. In their spare time (the menu, when they die, level up, etc) they like to listen to some gut-busting home-grown rock 'n' roll.

The Terran Republic is a militaristic nation that seeks to unite the warring factions through expression of arms and authoritative rule. Their weapons do slightly lower damage when compared to the other two factions, but don't worry you can still clean out a room as a TR soldier as they have the highest firing rate and largest ammo capacity, shooting longer than anyone before they have to reload. As befitting their 'glorious nation', they go all out and hire a full orchestra to play whenever you are viewing menus, taking a base, or give your life to The Republic in battle.

  • As of the time of this post, when you first load into the game, no matter what faction you choose, you will be a Light Assault soldier and be dropped directly into a heated battle zone. Be ready to fight (even though you don't know what you are doing yet - as with most things in life, just follow where other people are going for the moment). You'll probably die quickly (don't get too upset about it, it's part of the game and will happen a lot) and then when you do, you can choose your Class from the list and even if you want to move somewhere else. (Spawning at your main Warp Gate and using the terminal with the Globe on it to go to your faction's VR [Virtual Reality] room to practice moving and shooting, driving vehicles and flying is a good idea. Noone can even teamkill you there. If you need to find your main Warp Gate to spawn from, you can find it on the Map (default key 'M') or the large buttons on the bottom of the menu screen - you may have to first click REDEPLOY to be able to pick other spawn points)
  • The map of each of the three continents is huge and it can take a long time to run and sometimes even drive where you want to go. Use the DEPLOY buttons to respawn closer to the action - unless you actually want to drive around, enjoy the scenery and take screenshots, of course!
  • To get in and out of Vehicles and access Terminals, when you walk up to them a pop-up will remind you what key you have set to use them (Default key is 'E').
  • Vehicles are accessed via Terminals that have Tanks or Aircraft on the display (a picture of one, in your faction's color) and use Resources that each empire gives out periodically, more if you control more regions and less if you lose them.
  • To deploy a Sunderer (an Armored Personnel Carrier that can become a Mobile Spawn Point for you and your teammates), you have to certify your soldier with the ability (training/talent tree) using Certification points. Then, under the Abilities for the vehicles, go into the Sunderer and add it under Utility Equipment. After that, when you are the driver in one that you spawned, and have driven and arrived at where you want to deploy, press 'B' (by default). Now other Soldiers on your team can spawn from your Sundy and you get XP for it!
  • Certification Points are the 'talent points' of the game, that allow you to unlock abilities and weapons and vehicles. You earn a Cert Point every 250 Experience Points (and seem to earn them slowly offline as well, one every hour or less). You earn Experience Points by doing [what I call] 'interactive actions' within the game, such as killing an enemy, healing a teammate, fixing a tank or turret, sabotaging a generator, and so on. Sitting still in an area of battle does not get you XP, so get in there and help your team!
  • If you use Certification Points and purchase Suit abilities or Weapon scopes, you have to go to a Terminal and access your soldier's Loadout and click on your weapon/suit and click Change Attachments and add it to the gun/suit in there. Vehicle upgrades also have to be added to your Loadout via the menu to be warped in with your vehicle. Then, simply click Resupply and you have everything you purchased ready to go when you spawn, resupplied everytime.
  • The Class Abilities (Medic AOE Healing, Heavy Assault Shield, etc) default key is 'F' [I prefer mine to be 'E']. For Light Assault, you use Jump (Space Bar) and you just hold it down to use your Jetpack.
  • The guns have recoil/spread but you can still fire long bursts if you compensate by dragging the mouse down/etc slowly as you fire. Practice on a wall at different ranges to see your bullet spread hits and which way you will have to drag your mouse to counter that weapons' recoil. It should be noted here, that the game engine still 'inserts recoil', so even with compensating by dragging your mouse in the opposing direction of the recoil (which works in most games with guns as weapons), there will still be some recoil effect.
  • Friendly-Fire is ALWAYS ON, which is more realistic but may take a bit to get used to at first if you haven't been playing games where you can damage your teammates. Be careful to not run in front of people shooting out doors, down hallways, etc and be careful not to shoot your teammates, as after a couple warnings, all of your weapons will be locked down for a while and you will be unable to shoot anything at all. If you are a pedestrian, keep wary of tanks and vehicles to not get your teammates penalized by accident (and also avoid having to respawn again from being run over).
  • You do not have to fight in the thick of combat on the front lines all the time. Bases and Outposts that are in nearby regions can be sabotaged - generators and shields can be shut down, terminals can be hacked (by Infiltrators) to spawn vehicles for your faction instead of the enemy, all of which will make the base easier to take when your allies arrive - and of course, defenses against all of these things are needed behind the front lines of combat. If you want some breathing room for a minute after taking a base, hang back and play defense, repairing and getting ready for when the other guys respawn/regroup and come up to try take the base back.  There are tons of things you can do to help out your faction in the large scope of this game. Change it up whenever you feel like it.

I saw some of these questions being asked a lot in-game and wanted to throw out some tips as well, to help anyone who didn't know these yet, especially first-timers.  Have Fun!

By the way, the game seems to have a lot of aliasing (in my opinion), even at 1080p or higher resolutions. If you want to enable AA, you can do so by forcing it in your videocard's Control Panel. 

FXAA (NVIDIA) and MLAA (Morphological, AMD/ATi) are both versions of post-processing that should work and be visible in the game. Note that these may not be able to be captured in screenshots and game recordings (Fraps, Bandicam, Dxtory, Playclaw, etc) although they will be visible while playing the game.

Another way to enable some Anti-Aliasing, is to open the UserOptions.ini file in the Planetside 2 directory (which by default, seems to be C:\Users\Public\Sony Online Entertainment\Installed Games\PlanetSide 2 .
In the UserOptions.ini file, in the first [Display] section, there is a setting called RenderQuality. By setting this to a larger number (such as 1.200000 or 1.400000), the game renders in the background at a slightly higher resolution, then displays at whatever resolution you have set in the game. This 'downsizing' upon display is a form of SuperSampling AntiAliasing, and will help get rid of the jaggies - at a performance hit/cost. Do some tests to see if the tradeoff is worth it for your system.

See You In The Game!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - First Impressions and Screenshots

Counter-Strike is a popular series of first-person shooter games from Valve (Half Life, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress) and the fall of 2012 saw their most recent release in the series, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [CS:GO]. This past weekend was a Steam Free Weekend and I took part in the global offensive and had a great time - that is, once I was able to install and connect with the game. It must have been a jam-packed party because this error came up more than once at first:

After installing, I maxed out the settings and dove in. I played the original Counter Strike in 2000 ("Terrorrissss WIIIIIIIIINNN") but didn't play the remake, Counter-Strike: Source in 2004; but from what I've seen of screenshots and gameplay videos from that edition, CS:GO is yet another graphical step up in visuals.

Just outside an office building in the 'Office' level/map, an example of graphics in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. 

The core gameplay has the opposing sides, Terrorists who attempt to plant bombs, maintain hostages and take out their enemies, the Counter-Terrorists, who are trying to disarm bombs, rescue hostages (via follow-the-leader actions) and take out the Terrorists in general [are these terms flagging this blog now? haha].

The category of "Classic" gameplay is bomb planting/disarming and hostage dealings. There is also a "Demolition" game type, with bomb planting and defusal; but where you cannot pick your gear when the round starts. Instead, you are awarded the next, 'pre-chosen' weapon as you get kills with your currently-assigned one. There is also "Arms Race", where everyone starts out with the same weapon and each kill immediately awards the next weapon in a progression through [what seems like all the] weapons until finally a Golden Knife, where the first team to have someone reach this level and get the knife kill wins the match. In Arms Race, spawns are instant for each side.

The graphics are definitely a step up from Counter-Strike: Source. Models are updated and there is higher polygon usage throughout. Although still looking slightly dated compared to other recent first-person shooter games (the graphical Source Engine is about 7-8 years old, but constantly updated) CS:GO still holds its' own with dynamic shadows, anti-aliasing, motion blur, area wounding and HDR rendering. Some maps, such as 'Dust', could have used more poly love, especially on the environment (buildings, cars) but perhaps since it is a remake map, they didn't want to 'change it too much'. (It did have a nice amount of 'things on the ground', though). Office was an instant favorite and I spent most of my time there. Italy was beautiful, but suffered from over-bearing street cleaners, who apparently don't like to leave many boxes, crates, barrels and other miscellaneous (interactive or not) items on the ground [the ground seemed far too clean].

Textures were the Main Attraction in the update, in my opinion, as most were upgraded, sharp and detailed. Cement had clear pits/cracks and rug patterns were clear, clothing was textured sharply and metal had those little speckles in it. Almost all textures were crisp, except for what seemed like some 'leftovers' from past maps, such as the books in 'Office' on the shelf or some that just remained blurry at any distance despite having Anisotropic Filtering on maximum. Most however were greatly detailed, faces had stubble and pores. Wood Grain Everywhere. Polygon count for the important models (players and guns) were decent, even though the environment and objects (cars, sandbags, etc) on most maps could have used more complexity (I assume keeping the polys low were done so the game could be released on consoles and run better on older systems).

The actual gameplay itself was smooth and fast, but still felt somewhat 'mechanical'. I hate hate hate hate [insert many more here] things like head-bobbing or the entire frame pitching and rolling as I move, but without some sort of effects like these during movement I felt like I was playing Tactical Ops (think Counter Strike mod for Unreal Tournament) from 1999. [Hey, don't get me wrong I loved TacOps and feeling like I was playing that game wasn't a bad thing at all, in fact it helped me enjoy this game!] What I mean is the movements of the models and the player felt distinctly 'middle-school' (as opposed to 'old-school') as we all glided around the map and saw somewhat limited character animations. Perhaps that is a limitation of the Source Engine itself as it shows it age; but don't worry, the gameplay is still plenty action-packed and enjoyable as Valve does a great Makeover/Customization on the car that is the Source Engine. Bodies fly with rag-doll physics, crouching increases accuracy, headshots do critical damage,  teammates take damage (in Competitive Mode), blood splurts and marks walls and distinct sounds for each gun cracks and echoes throughout the map. Yes, there is still much fun to be had here, especially if you are a fan of the gameplay in the Counter-Strike Series of games.

For beginners, (those new to Counter-Strike, or those new to any first-person shooting games) there are very helpful text-based and obstacle-course types of tutorials within. One explains the heads-up-display and what the different parts of your screen is telling you, as well as the game modes and how to play them. The other runs you through the basics of shooting a weapon, aspects of the environment, and gives tips for better gameplay, like increasing your accuracy or going for headshots. There is even the ability to play against Bots only (computer-controlled characters) for practice and to get used to the mechanics of the game. You can even select various difficulties of Bots to play against to work on Achievements! I know that this alone will convert many people to purchase the game, especially when compared to other shooters that don't even give you the option to play with Bots at all *coughBF3cough*.

A practice shooting range on the Weapons Course, a training tutorial within the game.

For you Achievement Hunters, there are a ton of achievements, with various categories and ranking medals to show off. Want recognition for how many people you killed? It's in there. Want an award for playing as a team, whether it's diffusing the bomb or handing out free guns like a gun-crazy socialist Canadian? [I Am Canadian lol] It's in there. Want achievements for sneaking around the entire match or wiping out the entire enemy team yourself? It's all in there. Over 150 achievements are yours for the taking - now get in there and start earning money, because only about a dozen people have earned the 'Earn Fifty Million Dollars Total Cash' yet! 
[Stat source: Steam Max Players (50k), Steam Global Achievement Stats for CS:GO (.03%) at time of writing]

And now, more Screenshots!

Overall, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive looked better and 'still felt like Counter Strike' while being a lot of fun to play. If that was the goal of the developers; Mission Accomplished! 

See You In The Games!