Call of Duty WW2 has solved face-rendering – and it scares me

codface

Videogames’ extended voyage through the uncanny valley would go on for at least another couple of decades, I’d presumed until recently. Real, believable people conjured from our graphics cards would surely remain a pipedream for many hardware generations to come. Then I played Call of Duty: WW2, and the first cracks appeared in the walls of reality.

All of sudden, videogames can do faces. Amazing faces. Terrifying faces.

I’ll try not to tilt into hysteria here – clearly, if an image of a CODman was placed next to a real meatbag, I’d be able to tell the difference in less than a heartbeat. My dumbfounding when I saw CODWW2’s faces was not “aaah computer people are real, time to run away and live in the woods”, but more “wait, those are convincing faces, with a sense of life and individuality to them that I’ve never quite seen before.” Followed by “I do not want to watch these remarkably believable computer people suffer and die.”

COD has always pursued a photoreal approach to art and graphics, which has always carried the peril of not looking convincing enough – plus it means a COD from five years ago has dated visually an awful lot more than a more stylised game such as Team Fortress 2. Backing the wrong horse, thought I. But they stuck the course, and look where they wound up:

codface-5

codface-6

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These were all captured in-game at maximum settings and 3440×1440 resolution, and have been cropped, resized and compressed subsequent to that, for the record.

Again I am not arguing that the facial singularity is here, but instead that, very quietly, COD seems to have made a significant step forwards in face-rendering specifically. I experience a degree of discomfort with it that I haven’t from anything else – not the uncanny valley, but rather this new sense of seeing a range of micro-emotions pass across these men’s faces.

There’s all sorts going on in the above scenes – the way NPCs meet each others’ eyes, subtle furrowing of brows, raising of eyebrows and pursing of lips that’s a long way on from the shifting plates and hinged jaws of yore. Sure, you don’t have to look far to find the slight bug-eyes or glassy stare that have long been realtime-rendered characters’ tell, but the degree to which it is ameliorated in CODWW2 is truly startling.

Yes, the quality of the characters is noticeably higher in cutscenes and up-close-and-personal (and super-irritating) quicktime melee struggles than it is in all-out action sequences. However, the impression/illusion created by the more controlled scenes lingers enough in the run’n’gun ones that I feel haunted by some sense that these are individual people, with their own faces and personalities. People I don’t want to see die.

I am glad, for instance, that this man’s eyes are closed:

codface-4

I was genuinely distraught as this broadly-written but nonetheless distinctive cutscene chum took a potentially fatal wound.

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And, as we grappled, I felt this man’s hate for me, saw the murderous impulse in his eyes:

codface-2

I’m not saying it’s real. But I’m saying it’s an awful lot more convincing than anything else I’ve played in my life, and, though I have shot millions of pretend people in hundreds of games before now, I find there to be something eerily present about these ones. Something new that makes my blood temperature drop a few degrees as I watch them, or make them, die.

Games can do faces now. What happens next?

64 Comments

  1. Seafoam says:

    They still look like latex dolls to me. I suppose it is subjective or it looks better in motion.
    Or perhaps I cannot bring myself to see this game as story, but as a another dead genre that was brought back because we have no imagination or nothing better to market. That attitude could alter my perception as well.

    • Stingy McDuck says:

      Then you aren’t being objective.

      • Seafoam says:

        Eh, It’s all an illusion anyway. For that illusion to take effect the audience has to willingly suspend their disbelief.
        The attitudes towards the game can make one person’s realistic face other one’s latex doll. Context matters.

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          magnificent octopus says:

          Context is important. And I think writing is more important than graphics in getting one to care about a character. I had all kinds of emotions about the crew in Tacoma, and I mostly saw them as coloured blobs.

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        Objectivity goes out the window when you’re expected to believe that flashing lights on a flat piece of glass are a person’s face.

        • FriendlyFire says:

          Everything you see is flashing lights being refracted through an organic crystal. It’s a facile and rather poor argument to make.

          This isn’t to say that we don’t have decades of work left still, but the fact it’s being rendered through a computer screen isn’t one of them.

        • cheeseycom says:

          So you’re saying you couldn’t watch a video of an actual human on a screen and recognize them as a person?
          Because in that case, I don’t think it’s the viewing medium that’s the issue..

    • MrUnimport says:

      They do look really good in motion.

  2. thekelvingreen says:

    Judging by the advert for the generic cricket game I saw on the Tube this past weekend, not every developer has cracked it. Every one of the poor virtual sportsmen on the poster looked like a shop dummy with influenza.

    • Timje says:

      Yes, I’m not sure why you’d use giant mangled fake-faces for advertising your game when they’re literally the worst pictures you’ve got. Cricket games have looked great at the stadium zoom level for years, show us a picture of that or something.

  3. rubmon says:

    Hmmm…As a rookie 3D artist, my eyes may be more demanding than yours, but these have the word Doll written all over them.
    And the creepiness levels skyrocket once they start animating.

    • Cyber Ferret says:

      Yes, it’s really the animation that always triggers the Uncanny Valley effect. 3d art has been able to produce stills of humans indistinguishable from the real for years, at least for non real-time rendering. It’s when they start *moving* that the problems start, and that issue isn’t going away any time soon. Human movement is impossibly complex.

      • mukuste says:

        Are you sure? This looks pretty convincing to me:

        • automatic says:

          This is pre-rendered. To achieve this level of quality real time on a game you’d need like dozens if not hundreds of modern video cards connected in parallel. There’s nothing really new here except for the animation quality achieved by their software.

          • haldolium says:

            Thats not true at all. The tech is real, so is most of the computing power. Doesn’t really matter for games, since it’s always a calculation of costs.

            This is basically where we are currently in realtime possibilites, combined with Jorges rendering I’d say even further (90 FPS VR)
            link to fxguide.com

            It doesn’t mean much as long as it isn’t utilized. As I mentioned below, Jorge Jimenez has driven character rendering (and stuff like post AA) notably in his time at Activision, but you don’t see every RPG using the same great rendering possibilities or every game actually utilizing proper AA methods to minimize jittering, while trying to maintain a sharp image.

            The issue is within costs and especially in terms of new rendering methods the willingness to spend money on it. Basically all major studios do it within a small margin of high profitable franchises (like Ubi does it for AssCreed) but its all properitary and never really shared or used outside of it.

        • rubmon says:

          On the Emily video: the eyes are broken. And they obviously avoided more extreme expressions like laughter or sudden moves. The less stiff a scene is, the more the 3D models start to fall apart.

    • Jokerme says:

      As a semi-professional 3d artist I must say those are damn impressive game models.

  4. Freud says:

    WARFACE

  5. Zenicetus says:

    I haven’t played this game (and probably won’t), but I hope it helps raise the bar.

    I was hoping for that with Witcher 3, which had the best facial animation to date. I thought we had reached a milestone for games. But then, it was followed by a run of wooden faces with terrible animation in games like DX Mankind Divided and ME Andromeda, that looked worse than their previous games in the series.

    Recent games I’ve played have been a little better, but still not up to Witcher 3 level. If that’s an A-level, then I’d call Wolfenstein New Colossus a B- and Assassin’s Creed Origins a B+. I’m just hoping that we’re past the point where a $60 AAA game can get away with D-level wooden faces.

    • Stingy McDuck says:

      I love the Witcher, but I wouldn’t call those the best facial animations to date, unless you mean the best facial animations by 2015. Metal Gear Solid V had great facial animations and Rise of the Tomb Raider next year raised the bar. And let’s not forget about Uncharted 4.

      BTW, I would call Wolfenstein 2 faces a D-, except when you are looking at a main character in a cutscene. This game has the worst looking NPC faces I’ve seen in a while.

      • Scurra says:

        Then you aren’t being objective. (sorry, couldn’t resist.)

      • Zenicetus says:

        Right, I meant “to date” as 2015 where Witcher 3 created a new standard for that time.

        Didn’t play Metal Gear V or Uncharted 4 so couldn’t rate them. I did play Rise of the Tomb Raider. What I remember is most of the face animation was spent on Laura, and her campfire whining about how sad she was to be killing hundreds of people (give me a break). I guess it was okay, animation-wise. That game wasn’t very dialog-driven otherwise, so I don’t remember much about the NPC’s.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        Yeah, the facial animation in Uncharted 4 was amazing, but they weren’t going for photorealism overall. The slight cartooniess in the character design vs the mega-detailed environments actually made the characters more believable, if anything. A bit like Tintin.

      • Fincher says:

        I feel like there’s a distinction to be made regarding The Witcher 3 because much of that facial animation is key framed and done by hand, not all of it is motion captured like in Metal Gear Solid 5 or Uncharted. Therefore being able to see Geralt articulate and convey emotion across all the of the game’s different languages without it feeling out of place is a masterstroke of the game’s facial animation systems. It is also an amazing tool for modders – see The Witcher 1’s prologue being remade in The Witcher 3 engine. Whoever made that mod was able to access all of those amazing facial animations – no motion capture required. It’s a system that reminds me of how facial animation worked in Source and across all the Source mods released over the years.

  6. Shirsh says:

    I’d like to make joke about Bethesda rpgs on that matter, but can’t think of anything fun.
    Closing eyes and imagining good old Easy Pete accompanied by Boone and Moira Brown.

  7. Honigsenf says:

    some scenes of Kevin Spacey in COD Advanced Warfare were impressive for me regarding the uncanny valley thing
    link to youtu.be

  8. Meat Circus says:

    Hellblade did a FAR better job than this amateur hour effort.

    Dafuq is wrong with your eyes man?

    • Werthead says:

      Every second of Hellblade was video capture technology, IIRC. They had a whole video devoted to how they captured the face of an actress and integrated it into the game. Not sure if CoD did the same thing, but given that the missions are not *quite* as on rails as Hellblade, they probably had to have more procedural generation and extrapolation.

  9. DoomBroom says:

    What happens next is Virtual Reality.

    Lone Echo was pretty convincing. And then I’m looking forward to LA Noire: VR Case Files, even thought it’s like old.

    I wan’t to be up an personal with those faces, uncanny valley or not it’ll make good horror material :D More so in VR!

    • Zenicetus says:

      I forgot about LA Noire. That “ground breaking” facial animation looked creepy to me. Although it’s more realistic in some ways than Witcher 3 animation, I’d still rate Witcher 3 higher because it felt fully integrated into the rest of the game’s graphics.

      LA Noire’s faces looked pasted on, like a full-face version of old Johnny Quest cartoons where real mouths speaking dialog were inserted in cartoon faces. Realistic but creepy at the same time. Maybe it’s just me, but yeah… good material for VR horror.

      • woodsey says:

        Thank you.

        I’ve always felt like everyone else on the planet was involved in a conspiracy to try and convince me that the faces in LA Noire looked good, when they were demonstrably terrible.

        Just look at the fucking things. If an animated potato is “life-like” then I don’t want to go on living any more.

        • goodpoints says:

          but that guy from Mad Men who became a hari krishna who was the first serial killer made for such a beautiful animated potato.

      • wengart says:

        I always thought that LA’s faces looked very good on their own, but got weird when they were attached to the under-animated bodies. So you have these really expressive, and to extant impressive, faces glooped onto these stiffly animated puppets.

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          particlese says:

          I don’t remember my exact impression of the facial animation since I haven’t watched much of the game (or any of it in a long while), but this is also the impression I’m left with. Good mocap data fed to a well-used, good face rig, mounted on top of a keyframed marionette. I’d guess the latter was good or okay by itself, too, but together, they made monsters.

  10. haldolium says:

    CoD already drove character rendering very far over the past few titles and is basically the sole reason why I even bothered to take a look at one (something with space stuff, dont remember) of their horrible titles in the past 5 years.

    Sadly Activision is wasting their technical potential on CoD garbage storylines.

    Also this is the guy mainly responsible for this: link to iryoku.com

    He is an extremely gifted individual who contributed a lot to some aspects of realtime graphics development.

  11. phenom_x8 says:

    “I experience a degree of discomfort with it that I haven’t from anything else – not the uncanny valley, but rather this new sense of seeing a range of micro-emotions pass across these men’s faces.”
    The same feelings I got when playing LA Noire…

  12. milligna says:

    Maybe if you’re stoned.

  13. popej says:

    I’ve always found the impulse that some internet denizens have for posting ‘superior than thou’ comments under any thread of this nature quite unfathomable. Don’t they think about how their post sounds/how they come across to other people? I guess not.

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      Raelalt says:

      You pretty much summed up the Comments section posts everywhere.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      I alternate between sneering at people who make posts like that, and making them myself. :( It’s easy to recognize, but sometimes surprisingly difficult to avoid when someone is Wrong(tm) and I am filled with conviction to set the record straight. Working on it…

    • puppybeard says:

      Listen these faces look exactly like the ones in Duke Nukem 3D, and if you can’t see that, get your eyes checked.
      Faces in a game have yet to improve on the first Max Payne.
      **eats chalk**

      • msterofthe says:

        I’m with you. While other games strive for photorealism, Max Payne had actual photographs of people as its characters’ faces. Real > realistic, how can anything beat that?

  14. jonfitt says:

    Just from that one screenshot it looks like they’ve got good hands too. Hands are also apparently difficult to get right. Often the heroine of the piece has the hands of a 300lb dock worker.

  15. automatic says:

    I remember I was a kid when the first Quake came out and a friend of mine was like: “man, this is like real life!” and I was: “yeah!” Some years later and the same thing with the first 3D GTA. Then the same thing with Oblivion. They all look like crap now. I guess representation of reality never trully catches up the real thing.

    • purpledoggames says:

      You’re unfairly comparing Quake to real life now, not to real life when Quake came out. Same for 3D GTA. Quake looked nearly as good as real life when it came out, your memory is correct. It doesn’t look as good as real life now, because real life has evolved since then. Life was more blocky then (look at 1990s architecture (Soviet Union apartment blocks), squared off car designs, the rectangular things like VHS and cassette tapes from back then that could be represented in games by very simple geometries. As the world evolved into higher definition (think of the complexity of curves and light in a Bluray compared to VHS) the computer graphics have tried to keep up too. The graphics are always slightly behind real life, but because of Evolution it’s unfair to compare old time graphics to current real life. Compare it to old time real life. Look at some pictures from the past and so how grainy and blocky everything used to be. That’s why when you think back and remember how realistic graphics used to be, you were right. It’s Relativity. They might look like crap now, but only compared to now. Not compared to back then. Get it?

      • automatic says:

        Yes. Seems like the Matrix processors also get upgraded from time to time. One thing is common though, video game tree models from back then suck as much as the ones from now.

  16. mike22 says:

    The thing with the uncanny valley is that it gets worse up and to the point that they look 100% real.

    If anything this is the MOST uncanny valley I’ve ever seen characters. It’s unsettling.

  17. bit.bat says:

    LA Noire did the same for me. I thought it was a breakthrough in facial animation but I’ve never seen anything like it since. Sure, the fidelity of the models was not as high as with this COD but it was all about the way it moved for me.

  18. pendergraft says:

    That screenshot of Josh Duhamel looks like something out of Wing Commander.

  19. AbyssUK says:

    These faces aren’t fake though.. they’ve been scanned not drawn from scratch right ? I also guess the facial animations have also been recorded and just represented.
    I admit its good, but we are not quite playing god just yet..

  20. LennyLeonardo says:

    I don’t know, it hardly an original thought, but realistic faces do not make authentic characters. Reproduction is not representation etc.

  21. montfalcon says:

    They sure look fairly nice, but I really would have appreciated a few shots of them in motion, which is the real tell. I have been playing Rise of the Tomb Raider recently, and I regularly think to myself how impressive the animation is on Lara. Her lips actually look properly like they are making most of the sounds. Not as much care went into anyone else, of course. But it strikes me every cutscene.

  22. bill says:

    That 3rd one looks like they used a FMV actor to me. So that’s pretty impressive.

    I remember when I first played the Kingpin demo, and set fire to one of the NPCs and it was genuinely upsetting becuase of how real it felt / they looked.
    And now they look all blocky and totally unrealistic.

    It’s odd how our perception keeps improving as tech does. I wonder if in a few years these will look all blocky and badly rendered.

  23. Ch0ke says:

    How do I mod in my ex-wife’s face for all the enemies? Just kidding… I don’t have an ex wife.

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