On Fallout..

Last week I finished Fallout 3. I somewhat rushed it through, as the urge to start playing Fallout 2 had grown too strong! :P I probably continue playing FO3 from an earlier save later, since I had heaps of places I didn't get to visit and a good deal of unfinished quests as well.

So what do I think of the game? Well.. It's a great game – much better than Oblivion, for example – looks great and sounds great. I enjoyed my time on the wastes a great deal. But… how could I put this… It's not Fallout! :/ While there are plenty of things done right (the VATS system works quite nicely!), it's still missing much of the good old Fallouty spirit.. The biggest problem is the dialogue: it's just not that good, especially when compared to FO/FO2. NPCs feel like answering or quest machines. Where's the humour? Not much of it left. The ending was not very good either, although not as bad as some people claim it to be.

Nevertheless, as I said, I enjoyed the game a lot, and will be playing it again. :) Perhaps they should've called it Fallout: Something something something, though. I had a few problems with the game: three freezes (two of them while approaching Evergreen Mills) where I must restart PS3, one crash and several little (graphical / physics) bugs. Not too bad, I guess. Lots of PS3 players have complained about worse problems.

And after completing FO3, I've been playing FO2 again, after many years. As I mentioned in my last post, I never actually finished the game and have held FO1 as the better game. Let's see if the order changes after I finish the part two. It's very hard though (at least in the beginning), much harder than I remembered. I think I've hit a bug though (I'm using Killaps unofficial patch 1.02.25 – highly recommended, I've yet to try the Restoration Project), skip the following paragraph to avoid FO2 spoilers.

*SPOILERS* I cannot seem to be able to give Bishops holotape and the Raider account book to Lynette in Vault City. I wiped out Bishops in New Reno, found the holotape in the safe. On my way to Vault City, I cleaned out the Raiders cave. At Vault City, I can tell several people I've neutralized the raider threat, and they say I should tell the First Citizen, but I cannot give the account book to Lynette. Nor the holotape. I tried before doing the Gecko power plant quests and after – doesn't work. Oh well, I guess I cannot complete those quests then. *END SPOILERS*

Now I just need to plug GOG.com, the Good Old Games! The service is excellent, so far I've bought FO1, FO2 and Gothic. The games come prepatched and DRM free, it's great. :) Good stuff, highly recommended.

Holidays and gaming

First post of 2009, yay. I've been taking a break from, well, almost everything: school, work, programming (yes, even that!) and instead spent time with family, playing games and being lazy in general. Isn't that just what holidays are about? :)

I have played lot of games lately on the PS3, mostly Little Big Planet and in these last few days Fallout 3. Little Big Planet is really fun, especially when played together with others (in my case that means my fiancée Annemari <3). The Little Dead Space level was brilliant.

As for Fallout 3 (got it for Christmas), I'm very enthusiastic about it so far. * Feels a lot like Oblivion in places, but that doesn't bother me since I like Oblivion. My current Oblivion save has almost 60 hours put into it, and the game isn't nearly finished (I'm currently on the Shivering Isles expansion). The main quest is a bit dull, I don't like cleaning the Oblivion gates (hence Shivering Isles).. Fallout 3 on the other hand seems much better and more interesting. Maybe that's because there are hundreds of games in the generic fantasy world but only a handful (I'm only aware of Wasteland and Fallout 1 & 2) in a post-nuclear environment. This time Bethesda even hired more than three voice actors, wow! The game looks and sounds great, obviously. I guess I'll comment it more after I've finished the game.

After I'm done with Fallout 3 (not too soon, I reckon), there's a lot of unfinished stuff to play: GTA IV, Oblivion, Lego Batman.. :) In fact, I might even start Fallout 2 again, as I have never actually finished it(!). The original Fallout I've finished with at least three or four characters. Good times.

*) Yes, I'm aware the PS3 version is the worst of the bunch. However, it has trophies now and I haven't had any problems so far, apart from some minor bugs like a severed molerat head that just couldn't stop rolling around. The lack of anti-aliasing is a bit distracting, but nevertheless I can recommend the PS3 version… unless you got other options. I didn't (my PC is a bit too old).

Random things..

Before getting carried away with the platformer rambling, again, here's something about PolyAnim. Yesterday I added automatic polygon triangulation for concave polygons into PolyAnims LWJGL-renderer. This is mainly for convenience, since the triangulation is quite expensive – it remains to be seen if this is fast enough for more general use. At least with simpler scenes it might work alright. Convex polygons should still be preferred for speed reasons, but I admit it: they're major pain in the ass when animating. It's cumbersome to build and animate non-convex shapes from several convex pieces.. Hopefully somebody will contribute faster triangulation code at some point! ;)

What else.. I've been working a lot on the platformer engine. JBox2D got an update, so I ditched the old polygonal approach (which had a lot of problems, as Box2D is very picky about the shape of the collision polygons) and implemented the collision geometry using the new feature: edge chains. They work nicely and are just perfect for this kind of usage. I use triangulation with convex decomposition now only for the renderer, which luckily doesn't mind very thin triangles. I've added more eye candy as well, generation of level outlines and support for background/foreground polygons (which are not collidable, of course). I still need to implement other decoration elements, such as a stripe of grass blades running along top edge of things, for example. Parallax scrolling is something I want to have in too, I mean, if you're making a side scroller, why shouldn't there be parallax scrolling!? :D

And finally I did bite the bullet and implemented those damn PBuffers (enjoy the picture there, that's them buffers giving me hard time!). They work okay when FBO is not available, but they're yucky to code. Luckily LWJGL makes it a bit less painful than it truly is. Looking back, in Funguloids things were almost too easy, as I had Ogre at my disposal! Along with PBuffers the thing now supports plain old frame buffer copying as well, though I couldn't be bothered to make bloom work with it (lighting does, though, which is more important anyway).

While fighting with PBuffers, I noticed I could make the bloom much faster and more importantly allow for more shader effects if I used RTT (render-to-texture) same size as the screen dimensions. I could then render the scene only once to the RTT (currently I have to render twice!), have bloom shaders use that and actually do the final additive composition in the fragment shader too. Having a screen sized RTT would allow some neat shader effects like screen distortions and shock waves. There's one problem, many cards don't support rectangular (non power-of-two) RTTs.. The solution: separate rendering paths. I would implement several render paths with varying amount of shader and RTT usage, then determine what the host system supports and have things running nice and solid. Sounds like bit of work to me, but I guess the end results would be worth the trouble. We shall see. :)

Oh, and I've finished my bachelor's thesis, like a month ago. Forgot to mention that earlier. :P Now I'd need to decide if I continue to write master's thesis on the same subject, or choose something completely different. If only I could think of a subject having to do with game programming, that would certainly help with the motivation..

Shader goodness: Bloom!

In the last post I talked about lighting, this time it's shadersand more specifically bloom. I must say I like the effect when it's used subtly as a mood enhancement and dislike it in it's quite common burn-your-eyes-out -form..

For the platformer game I'm planning to use the effect for a nice and quiet dreamlike feel, although I'm still not sure what kind of game it will be (except that it's a 4-way scrolling platformer!).. And as I often do, I find myself getting carried away doing all sorts of graphical effects (lighting, shaders) when I don't even have the basic game mechanics in place! Can't help it though, I must have some eye candy going on to keep myself motivated in a project. *shrugs*

So I coded a quick & dirty shader support to the engine, and today I've been trying to get the bloom working. And now it does. :) I'm still not done with it, needs some tweaking – and that's somewhat impossible right now since I have no final assets for the game yet! Everything you see in those screens is temporary and/or random. For anyone interested, here's some technical details on the subject.

I based the implementation on the GLSL bloom shaders from Funguloids, which in turn are modified from Ogre sample shaders. I'm still a beginner with the shader programming as I may have mentioned, so having anything to work from was invaluable. I tweaked the shaders to get the subtle look I was aiming for.

I'm using two small render textures (which are FBOs, no support for Pbuffers yet – and I think I'll have to do those at some point, as my laptop doesn't support FBOs), 128×128 in dimension and one bigger 512×512 RT. I render the scene normally to the bigger RT. The blurring is then done in two passes: first the scene RT gets rendered to 128×128 RT #1 using a horizontal blur shader (it also does some luminance stuff to have the bright parts more bright and dim parts more dim). Then RT #1 gets rendered to RT #2, this time with a vertical blur shader. Finally the RT #2 contents are blended additively over a normal 1:1 render of the scene. It needs quite a lot of tweaking, but I think it looks quite nice now.

In another news, my thesis is now almost complete! ^^

Let there be LIGHT!

Wouldn't you know, after I complained about lack of coding motivation in my last post, I started hacking at my Java platformer engine the very same evening! I finished the Inkscape SVG importer, now I can create the levels in Inkscape using polygons, rectangles and circles.

Last couple of days I've been implementing a lighting system to the engine (and preliminary scripting support before that). The lighting system is based on very simple ideas and was quite easy to implement. No troubles whatsoever, I was actually surprised. First I was contemplating on doing it using pixel shaders, but that would've required much more work (still learning the shader stuff) and I'm not sure if I could have pulled it off anyway. I still need to incorporate some shader support to the engine if I want to have a bloom effect later on.. Pixel shader lighting would have allowed to have normal maps for the textures though, now that would have looked very nice if done properly! Oh well.

Instead I went for texture based approach using a single FBO (Frame-Buffer-Object) where the lights get rendered to (additive blending naturally). Then with help of some stencil buffer magic, the light map is rendered over the scene using multiply blending. Stencil buffer is needed because it makes no sense to render the lights/shadows over the background (i.e. sky in my platformer). That would be very unrealistic (you can't really cast shadows on the sky, now can you?) not to mention ugly. For top-down games no stencil buffer would be needed, unless the area that gets lit must be restricted somehow.

This technique allows completely dynamic lights of any shape (like flashlight cones) using one render-to-texture (FBO in my case). The light map doesn't even need to be large, since (at least with soft lights) it's hard to see the difference between 256×256 or 512×512. I'm using 256×256 currently, but even 128×128 looks fine. The system works nicely and I've yet to optimize anything about it: for starters I'm currently rendering each light, no matter if they're actually visible or not!

Overall it suits my purposes perfectly – carefully arranged lighting can make a tremendous difference in the feeling and apprearance of the game. :)

Here's a few sample screenshots. Please ignore all the graphics etc., as the level is just random polygons and lights are literally randomly generated. And the background is lifted off Jewels. :P