Bringing Middle-earth: Shadow of War to Life in 4K

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Feature Hero Image

Next week Middle-earth: Shadow of War will launch on Xbox One and Windows 10 as an Xbox Play Anywhere title, sending us back to Mordor to fight all manner of orcs and other fantastically evil creatures. But it’s this Fall when the Xbox One X hits store shelves that we’re most looking forward to our return to Middle-earth.

Not only has the game grown in scope from the 2014 classic by taking the central innovations of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and extending it to the larger game world, but it will be Xbox One X Enhanced with 4K and HDR (high dynamic range) support when the console launches on November 7.

In a recent visit to Monolith Productions in Kirland, WA, we heard from Michael de Plater, Design Director and Matt Allen, Lead Software Engineer talk through the game’s increased scope and scale of Shadow of War and how Xbox One X has helped close the development gap from creative vision to reality. In that, whatever vision is intended is traditionally compromised due to hardware limitations.

Matt Allen Photograph

“We have our own internal engine that we’ve been developing for close to 20 years,” explains Allen. “One of the cool things about having your own tech is that when a product cycle comes around we’re pretty much set up to hand it over to the graphics guys and say, ‘Hey, let’s get this up and running.’ ”

As you might imagine, there are many sub-groups that work together to bring a game to life. One of those are the content creators who, as Allen describes, make the content and don’t care which platform it’s coming to — that aspect of the game is ported over to all the platforms. It’s in this phase that most of the content is made at incredibly high resolution, and is then traditionally chopped down in scope to fit on other systems.

“So now when we get 4K and HDR, the character guys, for the most part, they can now see most of the pixels they’re actually making,” Allen says. “Obviously with HDR the color space opens up and there’s a lot of balancing there. Specifically, the lighting guys had to do a lot of work around how lighting got balanced.”

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Screenshot

“But because it’s all physically based rendered, all the lighting values are real world lighting values,” Allen continues. “And since we’re using real world ranges, it was just tweaking it to make sure that, in HDR, that this is the range we wanted. Having some competing HDR set ups made some of the initial work more difficult, but since we settled on HDR 10 we’ve been able to dial things pretty quickly.”

The other element that starts to come up, as described by Allen, is that once you go 4K it’s hard to go back to 1080p SDR (standard dynamic range). Our initial demo as guided by Michael de Plater was of gameplay was in 4K on powerful gaming PC fueled by an NVIDIA Titan.

In our demo, we saw Talion march his army on a controlled stronghold, which is truly impressive in size and scope. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is definitely heading in the right direction to capture the awesomeness like the battles we saw in the films, in particular the Battle of Helm’s Deep from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Screenshot

As the demo concluded, it was then when we truly saw the wow factor when gameplay was switched over to the Xbox One X. It was the subtle level of complexity to the scene from that on the high-powered PC. It was easy for us to discern the difference, as the two versions were switched back and forth, and we could only imagine how dramatic this would have looked if switched between 4K and 1080p.

“4K on the PC is awesome, and once you’ve been playing for a while in 4K it’s difficult to go back to something smaller (resolution),” Allen continues. “We got the same feeling of awesomeness when we finally got HDR up and running on the Scorpio (Xbox One X). This is the exact same level, in 4K, but 4K HDR on the Scorpio.”

Not only are games like Shadow of War looking great on Xbox One X, but the development tools that the team has grown accustomed to building on Xbox One are like that of Xbox One. Thanks to that, they could get Middle-earth: Shadow of War up and running in 4K HDR in such a short period of time — a day to get the game up in running and then the next day or two to pretty it up. Putting icing on the cake, as Allen describes.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Screenshot

It’s this aspect of development on the system that should not be underestimated. Yes, Xbox One X will help make games look fantastic. But the fact that the tech itself is so powerful, the creative vision can now be translated even closer than ever to what is finally delivered upon a game’s completion.

“When a character artist is modeling something, it’s millions of triangles. We could run a couple of those… but not the entire army,” says Allen. “Those guys build stuff and you can only really see it in renders and Maya but not in real time. So, by now, having advanced machines that are spitting out 4k and that full range, they can see very similar things in Maya and in MAX Design Studio that they can now see in the engine.”

Allen walks us through what some of those higher details are in in Shadow of War, but they’re not for the faint of heart. We’re talking deep, clear cut scars on Orcs, or maggots moving around on their skin. Truly a gruesome level of detail (which is also totally awesome).

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Screenshot

“There’s always people pushing tech forward, like film, and there’s a lot more overlap between games and film than five years ago,” says Allen. “But film still gets to render ‘offline’ where games are using more of what film is using in trying to get it to work in real time, and assembling these elements in real time. Obviously, film pushes rendering technology, but we’re building these things, like the Nemesis System, characters… these are things only a game can do for you.”

Indeed, there is that balance between super high resolution and fidelity that will only improve over time, making our games even more realistic, and helping designers see more of their creative vision come to life with fewer technology constraints. And the next phase of seeing the scope of games grow will begin November 7 upon the release of the Xbox One X. And we can’t wait for it to get here.