New NVIDIA HBAO+ Technology Debuts In Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist

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New NVIDIA HBAO+ Technology Debuts In Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist

Earlier today at GamesCom in Cologne, Germany, NVIDIA and Ubisoft announced the signing of a far-reaching technology agreement that will see the two firms bolster Ubisoft’s upcoming AAA PC games with advanced features, effects and technologies that make the most of GPUs like the GeForce GTX 780. The first game to benefit from this unprecedented relationship is Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist, which is launching worldwide this week with full support for NVIDIA TXAA Anti-Aliasing, NVIDIA HBAO+, and NVIDIA SLI, the smoothest and fastest multi-GPU solution available.

For those new to the long-running Splinter Cell franchise, Blacklist casts you as series protagonist Sam Fisher, one of the world’s most skilled covert operatives, tasked with the most challenging missions in the world’s most dangerous hotspots. Using stealth, gadgets, and the occasional overt action, Sam must sneak his way to the truth about a new terrorist plot, and ultimately save the day before the United States of America is consumed by terrorism. When you’ve saved the day, you can jump into intense co-op missions, and a much-anticipated 4v4 multiplayer mode that pits Sam-style stealth agents against gun-toting operatives who desperately defend important objectives.

On all formats Blacklist looks lovely, but on PC there is a ton of extra tech for your PC to tackle.

NVIDIA HBAO+ Ambient Occlusion

Splinter Cell is a franchise dominated by shadows. Sam does his best work when under their protection, sneaking, snapping necks, and circumventing security systems, so it is imperative shadows are as detailed and realistic as possible. The PC version of Blacklist features higher-resolution, more detailed shadows, as you would expect, but to take the PC version to the next level something new was required. To that end, NVIDIA and Ubisoft have worked in concert to implement a brand new shadowing effect called HBAO+, which makes its debut this week in the critically-acclaimed Splinter Cell Blacklist.

An important advancement in the field of Ambient Occlusion (AO) shadowing, HBAO+ dramatically improves upon existing AO techniques to add richer, more detailed, more realistic shadows around objects that occlude rays of light. In comparison to previous techniques (such as the “SSAO+” technique available in Blacklist), HBAO+ doubles the overall number of samples per pixel, runs twice as fast, and uses the latest DirectX 11 technologies.


The world of Blacklist is full of shadows, demanding new, cutting-edge shadow tech.

Most commonly, games use Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) for the rendering of AO effects. There are many variants, though all are based on early AO tech, and as such suffer from a lack of shadow definition and quality, resulting in a minimal increase in image quality (IQ) compared to the same scene without AO.

At the 2008 SIGGRAPH tech conference NVIDIA introduced an upgraded SSAO variant called Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO). Unlike previous SSAO variants, HBAO uses a physically-based algorithm that approximates an integral with depth buffer sampling. In other words, the upgrade enables HBAO to generate higher-quality SSAO, whilst increasing the definition, quality, and visibility of the AO shadowing.

For performance reasons, however, HBAO is typically rendered at half-resolution, as in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3, reducing the number of AO pixels by three-quarters. Unfortunately, rendering HBAO at reduced resolutions inevitably causes flickering that is challenging to hide in all situations – Battlefield 3 HBAO selective temporal filtering helps, but in some cases flickering persists.

To overcome these issues, NVIDIA’s Louis Bavoil has completely redeveloped and revamped Screen Space Ambient Occlusion to create HBAO+, a paradigm shift in the field of Screen Space Ambient Occlusion rendering.


Shadowing has come a long way since the release of the original Splinter Cell, a decade ago.

The first goal for Louis at the outset of his work was to create an AO technique that could be rendered at full resolution at 1920x1200 on a modern GPU like the GeForce GTX 660. HBAO offered good definition at full resolution, but its crippling performance impact made it impractical for modern games, and when it was used at a reduced resolution it still had a heavy impact on frame rates in comparison to SSAO.

Louis’s second goal was to maximize the efficiency of the AO implementation by leveraging the speedy DirectX 11 tech on GPUs, and the software advances that DX11 brought to the table when launched in 2009. Ultimately, the new DirectX 11 hardware and software enabled Louis to render HBAO+ with a fast Interleaved Rendering technique instead of a slow Fullscreen Pass, which had to be further supplemented by per-pixel jittering for the reduction of aliasing on AO shadows.

Louis’s third and final goal was to improve the visual fidelity of HBAO+ in comparison to HBAO, especially in scenes with grass, leaves, and other fine detail. As seen in Far Cry 3, HBAO struggled in such situations, creating overbearing, solid areas of shadowing.


HBAO+ is as-important when outside, helping to create a realistic scene lit by the sun and man-made lights.

The result of Louis’s work is a more accurate Ambient Occlusion technique, with weighty shadows that are better defined, more accurate, and more visible. Below, you can view an interactive comparison that shows a scene with all textures and game elements removed, leaving only the Ambient Occlusion shadowing, enabling an easy comparison between the new and old techniques.


Note how the HBAO+ Ambient Occlusion shadowing is far more accurate, sitting correctly on and around objects in a non-uniform fashion. Also note the fence-like area towards the rear of the image. With HBAO, the technique’s poor sampling quality results in the area being uniformly shadowed, similar to the grass situation in Far Cry 3. In this demo, on a GTX 680 at 1920x1200, HBAO+ is over three times faster than HBAO, dramatically improving the frame rate.

As you can see, HBAO+ is better in every way in comparison to HBAO, which is rendered at full resolution in the example above. At half-resolution, the quality and precision of HBAO would be further reduced and the image quality of the effect lessened.

To measure the speed of AO techniques we record the time it takes for the calculation and rendering of one frame of AO to occur, from the game to the GPU, to the monitor. Using development tools, at a screen resolution of 1920x1080 on a GeForce GTX 680 clocked and locked at 1058 MHz, we recorded the speed of each Splinter Cell Blacklist AO option in a fixed scene, shown below in greyscale.

AO Technique

Resolution

Occlusion Samples
Per AO Pixel

GPU Cost
(milliseconds per frame)

SSAO

Half

16

1.3

SSAO+

Full

16

4.6

HBAO

Full

4

1.0

HBAO+

Full

36

2.4

 

In Blacklist, Ubisoft’s full-resolution SSAO+ technique offers superior image quality in comparison to half-resolution SSAO, but seriously impacts the frame rate in the process, running 3.3 milliseconds per frame slower. HBAO’s implementation, meanwhile, runs at full-resolution but with only 4 occlusion samples per pixel, far fewer than the 16 used for SSAO and SSAO+. The trade-off is an increase in performance and an AO’d image with its own, separate set of issues.

Full-resolution NVIDIA HBAO+, in comparison, is nearly twice as fast as the next-best Blacklist AO technique, SSAO+, and achieves this feat with more than double the number of occlusion samples. The result is a speedy implementation that offers a far richer, more detailed image than the other techniques.


For maximum image quality, select “Field AO & HBAO+” in the Blacklist options menu to add extra AO shadowing to characters, vehicles and a few unique objects.

Louis Bavoil’s HBAO+ Ambient Occlusion is a clear winner, and a no-brainer for use in Splinter Cell Blacklist. Its image quality far exceeds that of any other technique, it’s the first viable full-resolution AO option, the first to use DirectX 11 technology, the first to utilize new rendering processes, and the first to virtually eliminate flickering and artifacting. Best of all, HBAO+ won’t have a noticeable impact on your frame rate when rendering all of its excellent AO shadowing at an exceptional level of detail.

With such well-defined, rich shadowing, HBAO+ is the perfect addition for a shadowy Splinter Cell game, and like everything else in this piece it is exclusive to the PC. For news of future HBAO+ enhanced games stay tuned to GeForce.com.

NVIDIA TXAA Anti-Aliasing

NVIDIA TXAA is a PC-exclusive film-style Anti-Aliasing (AA) technique designed specifically to tackle temporal aliasing, the visible movement of anti-aliased edges when the camera or player’s viewpoint is in motion. Combining hardware AA techniques, custom CG movie-style AA resolves and a temporal filter, TXAA creates a smooth, softer image that is free from almost all aliasing, edge crawling, and flickering, which is particularly noticeable when viewing fine detail, motes and other particle effects without the aid of TXAA.

To enable TXAA in Splinter Cell Blacklist you’ll need a GeForce GTX 600 or 700 Series GPU, and the latest set of GeForce drivers (326.80 beta at the time of writing). With the drivers installed, simply select the TXAA setting in the Anti-Aliasing section of the Video Options menu.

NVIDIA GeForce Experience

GeForce Experience is a new application from NVIDIA that optimizes your PC in two key ways. First, it maximizes your game performance and game compatibility by automatically downloading the latest GeForce Game Ready drivers. And second, it intelligently optimizes graphics settings for all your favorite games based on your exact hardware configuration.

Splinter Cell Blacklist will be fully compatible with GeForce Experience, and with a single click of the “Optimize” button the game will be automatically configured to give you the perfect balance between performance and visual fidelity.

GeForce Experience will also show you examples of each setting, explain what they do, and download any SLI profile updates automatically, ensuring multi-GPU SLI setups run at optimum speeds at all times.

DirectX 11 Tessellation

Exclusive to the PC version of Blacklist, DirectX 11 Phong Tessellation adds extra geometric detail to characters and some world objects, helping them appear more detailed and more realistic, as our ear example below shows.


Tessellation removes the jagged harsh joins between polygonal lines, making the ear appear round and realistic.

High-Resolution, High Quality Assets

On the PC, every asset in Blacklist is of a higher quality, from the textures to the models, to the audio. The extra Video RAM of PC GPUs is used to bring higher-resolution textures to the screen, the extra processing power of CPUs and GPUs allows more detailed models and effects to be rendered, and the extra storage space of PC hard drives enables Ubisoft to ship Blacklist with high-quality Surround Sound mixes and audio files, free from compression. Even the .bik video files are of a higher quality, ensuring unsightly compression artifacts aren’t seen.

In total, an install of Blacklist will consume around 22GB of disk drive space, so clear some space from your SSD to accelerate Blacklist’s level loading and asset streaming, ensuring optimum mid-mission performance.

Final Trimmings

Leveraging everything the PC has to offer, Blacklist on the PC has a few final enhancements that help it further eclipse the console versions. Maximum-quality PC Texture Filtering sharpens textures and counteracts the blurring of distant textures and those viewed on an angle; DirectX 11 shaders add a bit of extra pizazz to special effects and surface lighting; DirectX 11 powers the game’s Ultra Shadow Quality option; and Parallax Occlusion Mapping adds simulated detail to surfaces, creating the appearance of extra geometry that would ordinarily be too demanding to render.


Parallax Occlusion Mapping creates the appearance of a cobbled street in this screenshot.

Conclusion

HBAO+ Ambient Occlusion, TXAA Temporal Anti-Aliasing, and the many other aforementioned enhancements combine to make Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist a technical tour de force and the leading example of how to shadow and detail a realistic, simulated world. Blacklist’s stark realism demanded the use of accurate lighting and shadowing, and with the assistance of HBAO+ Ubisoft has shown other developers how it should be done, redefining videogame shadowing and shading.

With the addition of NVIDIA TXAA this bleeding-edge work isn’t undone by the appearance of unsightly temporal aliasing, ensuring the player’s immersion is maintained at all times, drawing them into the nail-biting stealth action that demands complete concentration on Blacklist’s most challenging difficulties. And with the perfect sound system, Blacklist’s Surround Sound mix will enable players to locate an enemy’s position through their footsteps alone.

In conclusion, Splinter Cell Blacklist running on a GeForce GTX PC is the ultimate way to experience Sam Fisher’s new anti-terrorism campaign, and it’s a perfect example of the new NVIDIA-Ubisoft technical agreement that will see PC versions of Ubisoft’s games enhanced with cutting-edge NVIDIA tech, DirectX 11 effects, and other PC-exclusive goodies like tessellation and out-of-the-box SLI support.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist is out now on UPlay and Steam, and is also available in stores near you. For a limited time, Blacklist is bundled with select NVIDIA GeForce GTX graphics cards at participating retailers – for further details, head here.

If you’re at GamesCom, head on over to our Hall 8 stand to go hands-on with the PC version of the game.

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