I highly doubt that the original Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell developed by Ubisoft Montreal in 2002 was the first game to use sophisticated real-time point-light shadows, but I remember it back then being the first one in which I personally saw them in action. I was truly impressed by the shadows thinking “this is something completely new and subversive”. And those moments are the sole reason why I am (and everyone else should be) following the real-time image industry in the first place.
On that note, I find it fascinating that 8 years later I had almost the same exact experience with the newest installment of the same Splinter Cell –series, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction. Obviously, I’m talking about Conviction’s unique Dynamic Ambient Occlusion (DAO) system which is something I had never seen before in a real-time / video game context. And make no mistake about it; this is not a post-processing effect, like the Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) found in Crysis and alike is, but a view-undependable, spatially genuine shadowing system, and one can only wonder how in the world Ubisoft Montreal pulled it off so neatly.
Of course, Conviction’s DAO is far from perfect and it seems to have a rather narrow sweet spot in which it performs best, due to the mainly relatively large scale of the effect. And there are some inconsistencies too, and downright ▸errors. But still, I’d take it over SSAO anytime, anywhere.
What is the impact on performance then, you may ask? In the case of Conviction, it’s hard to tell precisely since Conviction seems to be not so well optimized as a whole. It stutters more or less with and without the DAO on my setup on which majority of the modern titles work otherwise fine. However, according to the developer, the performance hit should be somewhat equal to of SSAO, which is not a major issue.
All in all, in my opinion, it cannot be stressed enough how big of a deal Conviction’s DAO is. Indirect illumination is somewhat like the Holy Grail of real-time imagery, and this is a huge step in a right direction.
When do we see the next step?