Gamers usually see a marked improvement in 3D graphics every two or three years. When Microsoft ties a new version of DirectX into Windows, or when AMD/Nvidia announce an exciting new feature in their graphics chips (one that developers are excited about, that is), you can look forward to new effects coming along for the ride.
Milestone titles like Morrowind, Doom 3, and Far Cry were made famous by reflections in the water, nerve-wracking lighting effects, and believable island worlds. The greatest improvement was the development of the pixel shader, which now ensures natural water movements, lighting effects on surfaces, and film-style special effects like motion blur. Today, the most advanced effects are enabled by DirectX 10.1 and Shader 4; DirectX 11 and Shader Model 5 have already been announced and will pave the way for another level of added realism.
High Dynamic Range Rendering (HDR-R) is responsible for bright shining effects, artificial 3D light sources creating true reflections on surfaces, and the disorientation of staring straight at the sun. Users with a graphics card using Shader Model 3 were astounded by the shimmering silver swords and sunlit temples of white stone blocks in Oblivion. Today, HDR-R with DirectX 10 generates long rays of light as seen in Crysis or Stalker: Clear Sky, breaking through the branches and leaves and creating wonderful shadow play.
Hollywood has been making use of this potential for much longer, often employing special cameras that better capture the intensity of the light in order to get closer to the receptivity of the brain and eyes. The following pages will portray many optical comparisons between 3D graphics, and nature’s own special effects, all of which will help to impressively demonstrate the development and current state of PC games.
This article is made up of two parts. The first discusses the development of games and characters, and gives an overview of current lighting effects and the depth effect of surfaces. The second section concentrates more on the elements of fire and water, draws comparisons with Hollywood monsters and special effects, adds a little physics, and a couple of images foretelling the next generation.