The mountain we're driving up is two kilometres high. In the distance, a patchy landscape of tea plantations and scrublands stretches out toward the horizon. Above us, bulbous clouds crawl by, scattering vast grey blankets of shadow.
The Audi R8 V10 weaves its way through snaking roads, the sun occasionally glinting across the windscreen, the crumbling surface almost palpable beneath the tyres. This is India, accurately and rather epically modelled into a racing game. At this height, at the very tip of the mountain range, the artists have had to think about the curvature of the Earth, and how this will affect sunlight and cloud patterns at the furthest reaches. This is where game visuals are going.
While we've known for months that DriveClub would take place in locations around the world, Evolution has only really showed Scotland so far – but while visiting the studio recently, we also caught glimpses of the impressive Canada and India environments. The art staff did what art staff do on racing games: they went on months of field trips to research architecture, geography and habitats; the difference is, the Evolution team seems to be trying to cram all of it into the game.
For each country, there are many miles of landscape, loaded with authentic local detail. Most of the circuits are inspired by real-life roads and the local street racing routes the researchers learned about. "All the detail we're putting in is equivalent to PC first-person shooters," says technical art director, Alex Perkins. "And then we're throwing a whole dynamic lighting system over the top."
As Perkins shows me the India circuit, he points out a drive along a river bed, through a valley of looming rock walls and out along a concrete overpass: "We've picked locations; and seasons that are indicative of the locations," he says. "I can think of three roads that we went along in this location that looked just like this; it's about capturing the soul of the roads and the networks". The seasonal element is important. Apparently, all the vegetation is accurate to the locations and the time of year – even the cloud movement is all real ("With summer clouds in the UK, the average lifespan is about eight minutes," Perkins points out nonchalantly at one point during the demo).
Everything is then lit via a true 24-hour day/night system, rather than a baked in sequence of pre-set lighting changes. "We've developed our own capture technique so the lighting in shadow, the lighting in direct sunlight and the way the car highlights fall off over distance – they all maintain proper energy conservation values," says Perkins. "We had to redesign our entire materials system – how we actually collect the information; it's much closer to the process you'd have on a film set for compositing CG elements into a live action image."
"None of the direct light or shade is faked anymore," says Perkins. "It's at the point where you can see things like dynamic lens flare when you look at the sun and you can see a bit of chromatic aberration because we're mimicking slightly cheaper film lenses to capture deliberate imperfections that will make the game more lifelike."
But there is more to it than simply making nice effects. It's about using environmental lighting to build atmosphere on a macro level. "One of the big things we're trying to do with the game, is to keep things as dynamic and changeable as possible," says Perkins. "The whole look and feel of the game changes dramatically based on the cloud covering – there's massive variation every time you play. And the light scatters properly, so when the clouds are injected into the scene, we get a real sense of scale."
Car models too surpass anything Evolution has done before. While Motorstorm vehicles maxed out at around 23,000 polys each, DriveClub models are hitting 250,000, with interiors alone requiring around 60,000. Everything is authentic, from the fully functional speed and rev dials on the dashboard to the materials on the seats. Principle vehicle artist Neil Massam tells me that manufacturers are now having to rethink their approval procedures for racing games because the level of detail is so high.
Kirkland is intrigued but reckons there's plenty of time to find that stuff. "You already have a lot of CPU power at your disposal," he says. "I think with many of the first generation PS4 titles, developers probably won't need to worry about it – they'll be able to get a lot out of parallelism across the CPU cores – but for teams who are a bit more ambitious, who want to do interesting things, it's just waiting there. We're doing some of that in DriveClub and I'm sure other guys will go further – and the platform guys will expose more of that functionality through the lifespan of the machine, unlocking more potential."
Hopefully we get a new demo at gamerscon that is closer to the earlier media they put out. They seem really proud of their technology engine, and there's no wonder they're shooting for 30FPS if they're building a global illumination engine off the bat for launch. Epic Games CUT GI from Unreal 4 Engine because they thought it was too resource intensive for next gen PC, let alone consoles and couldn't justify the performance hit. Might be the case here for those wanting 60FPS, but a rock steady 30FPS with GI might just work if the lighting is as amazing as they're making it out to be.