Remastering the past
Everything’s already been done,” rants Tom Sizemore in Strange Days, a movie about VR junkies and social entropy on the eve of the 21st century. “Every kind of music’s been tried, every kind of government’s been tried, every fucking hairstyle, bubble gum flavour, breakfast cereal… How are we gonna make another thousand years?” The answer, we’re now discovering, is to revive the previous 50.
HD remakes are just the latest avenue through which gaming’s past is being rebranded and repriced for the present. And that’s not all: “Given the multi generational maturity of many franchises, plus the scale of both investment and ongoing return involved, and the opportunities presented by connected devices and online services, we’re seeing an unprecedented amount of regurgitation, rediscovery, emulation, remixing and updating taking place right now,” says Screen Digest analyst Steve Bailey. “HD collections make sense under this umbrella, especially with backwards compatibility on the HD consoles being so half-cocked.”
Let’s run through them quickly. Available already are Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, God Of War Collection, Dead Space: Extraction, Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus ‘HD Classics’, Resident Evils Code Veronica and 4, Perfect Dark, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath (as part of the Oddboxx pack on PC), Bionic Commando: Rearmed, God Of War: Origins Collection (the PSP games), No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise, Beyond Good & Evil HD, Prince Of Persia Trilogy, Splinter Cell Trilogy House Of The Dead: Overkill – Extended Cut, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection Silent Hill HD Collection and The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Coming soon: Zone Of The Enders HD Collection and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath (on PS3).
Inevitably, some of these are better ported or better suited to being ported than others. Just Add Water’s version of Stranger’s Wrath was a disaster on PC, released as part of the Oddboxx in time for Steam’s summer sale, but in no fit state. It tarnished the game’s legacy. Meanwhile, years of bad ports and PC mods have showed that Resident Evil 4 needs more than just a higher resolution and sharper textures (which the remake doesn’t feature anyway) to avoid looking worse in 720p. And is 720p even HD enough nowadays? Who knows what HD means any more, and who cares?
Peace Walker on PSP (left), with its PS3 incarnation
We know someone. Bluepoint Games has fast emerged as a name you can trust in this re-release melee. One of the few to turn around its PSN debut (Blast Factor) in time for the service’s launch, it caught the attention of leads at Sony Santa Monica keen to commission HD remakes of the first two God Of War games. The third was on its way for Q4 of 2009 (but arrived in March the following year), while the second had released late in PS2’s lifecycle, so the idea made artistic and commercial sense.
“[Santa Monica’s] internal team would have taken longer, basically; bigger teams have got more inertia,” explains Bluepoint’s president, Andy O’Neil. “It was a very difficult timeline, but a nice clean codebase. Let’s just say there were some bets placed on whether this would get done on time or not, but we got it done and worked hard to pay attention to the detail.”
To say the devil is in those details would be an understatement, and many critics of HD remakes aren’t even that generous. People underestimate the work they require, O’Neil believes.
“The problem with source asset drops is that you don’t know if it’s the final shipped data. Because people will go and make last-minute changes. They might have done it on the build machine, on a local drive, or done something weird so it didn’t get backed up. So what we do is take the retail disc and reverse-engineer it, pull all the data off that. For God Of War, we actually got a big virtual knife and chopped off their entire renderer and replaced it with ours.”
That was the easy part. We don’t have the extra 2,000 words to tell the full story, but the short version involves a lack of IEEE-compliant maths on PS2, meaning divide-by-zero glitches on PS3, and no palletised textures on PS3, which turns a 32k PS2 texture into a 1.3Mb one to be streamed from an optical drive that only runs “about ten per cent faster”. Then there was a lack of source assets for heavily post-processed cinematics; 50 and 60Hz PAL localisations, which took up an entire Blu-ray; and missing fonts.
This, O’Neil says, “takes loads of low-level skills. I think the average [number of] years of experience needed is 15 to 16. And we’ve got two technical directors working on the current one [Metal Gear Solid HD Collection]. They’re all technical directors from big places with years of experience in Assembler. Because if you don’t do that, you’re going to get in a big mess. You make one mistake and it kills it.”