The Callisto Protocol is a game with a myriad of inspirations and references within its design, but on the technical front it is most certainly a leader. Striking Distance is a relatively small, and certainly new studio, filled with a mix of veterans and new members who have collaborated to create one of the most forward-looking games of this generation. But before I get into that, I need to note that while the game is cross-generation, our review code only had access to the new-gen consoles and later the PC version.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X both have two modes: one is the default, which you could call a Quality mode or Ray Tracing mode, which runs at 30fps and has a dynamic scaling resolution with counts ranging from 3456×1944 to 2304×1296, effectively 90% to 60% of 4K. This is then improved, I suspect, by Unreal Engine’s TAAU to up-sample that back to 4K as often as possible. The image treatment here from that lower base is staggering, and I would not be shocked to learn that the team that has built or enhanced this with their own custom resolve and AA pass, as it can easily pass as 4K aside from some high-contrast areas that can be slightly unstable from the jittered rendering resolve it uses to up-sample. The game also supports FSR 2.1, with the caveat that this could be what the consoles are using, and the dynamic scaling could be higher or lower. Due to its dark look, gritty world, gore, and violence, this is a game that benefits greatly both from the Film Grain, which can improve perceived sharpness of the image, and the superb Per Pixel Motion Blur that assists greatly in the fully real-time cinematics, often convincing you they are genuine offline renders from only last generation.
The Quality mode is where all the new features stand out, being a great example of how the team has integrated elements of the later Unreal Engine 5 into this Unreal Engine 4.2 game. It supports both DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 to enable older GPUs to run the game, but without DX12 you will miss out on the ray-traced reflections, shadows, and translucent surface refractions. In isolation they may seem like only a small boost, but due to the core cinematic and atmospheric design the game has, they are the biggest reason the game pulls off possibly the most impressive real-time character models in games thus far.
This mode has two main boosts, Ray Traced Shadows and Reflections, with the shadows running on both Series X and PS5. They not only dramatically increase the amount of shadow casting light sources within a scene, they also allow smaller objects to now cast shadows. The accuracy here is incredible as light and shadow now react more realistically, and less light bleeds through geometry. Darker areas now contrast better with the light, and shadows cast right off into the distance, whereas in Performance mode, they can pop in close to the camera and cast no shadows off into the middle and far distance. The way light casts across faces is so good, making it one of the main reasons that the game has such a high-quality CGI look and feel. The other big boosts are in the gameplay, as the lighting design works much better with the sheer wealth of shadows, particularly since some jump scares and tells in the game are designed with Ray Traced shadows in mind. This means in Performance mode you will simply not see a shadow of a monster in the distance, whereas in the Quality mode it is like Michael Myers popping up from behind the sofa.
Currently only the PlayStation 5 supports ray-traced reflections, even as of launch patch 1.3, with the Series X version limited to screen space reflections. I would assume that a patch will come soon to add them to the Series X, but until then it does leave the Xbox console missing out on a big visual boost of the new-gen version. The only saving grace is the Quality mode on Series X does run with a higher resolution most of the time due to this. The loss is noticable, as reflections are another key ingredient to the horror cake. Screen space reflections are still used as a boost to the local screen data on pools of water, blood and such, but they draw off as SSR no longer has that information on screen, but they blend here with those ray-traced reflections, and those are always present. From giant security robots to head-munching beasts, everything reflects in these surfaces. But the game goes even further by using them in planar surfaces and transparent reflections, which are expensive, meaning that both you and dynamic enemies all appear far more grounded and present in the game world. These reflections are also used on sub surface light refraction on enemy skin, with the blood- and pus-filled growths refracting light through in real-time.
The second mode is Performance, which makes some visual cutbacks to the graphical force this game is. Ray-traced effects are all off the table now along with reduced post effects, lighting model, ambient occlusion, shadows and resolution, which now changes the dynamic range from a 2560×1440 maximum down to a low of approximately 2112×1188 – 55% of 4K – in some heavier sections. Again, with many of these techniques it may be a base resolution AA up sampling that now targets 1440p rather than 4K. The result is that any deficit can be hard to notice in many sections, but the biggest tell is on texture details within high frequency areas, increased dithering on shadows and a great deal less of them, and worse and nosier lighting passes. The payback is the game now runs at a 60fps target, which helps improve the temporal stability and the controller response. This helps most in the dodge-and-evade combat mechanic which requires you to move the left stick in opposite directions to the attack.
That said, this game is not a fast-paced shooter by any means, although it does have many other Doom-like qualities. In fact one of the games it reminded me of was Doom 3, a game that pioneered stencil shadows, so it’s fitting for the ray-traced ones here to really deliver on those same aims of accurate light and dark. It has the same sense of atmospheric tension, just delivered on a whole new scale.
The Series S cuts back some more effects, but resolution is the same as the Performance mode on the higher-end consoles, with a 1440p high and dynamically scaling down to 1080p as needed, although all my counts came out at 1440p. However, this is a single mode on the console and targets the same 30fps as the higher-quality mode of the other consoles, but it misses out on many of the graphical treats that mode offers, and instead resembles the Performance mode more, just with some extra cutbacks to aid the performance targets and relatively high pixel count it offers. The differences are not stark to most I am sure, but it did stand out to me jumping from the ray-traced mode on the other two. The cutbacks are intelligent, which can start to highlight some of the cross-generation roots of the game, as the extra fidelity, post effects, lighting and essential post processed film like rendering techniques are cut back heavily in places and far more frugal in others. This leaves materials often looking flat, with far fewer light sources, shadows, and more obvious light bleed and incorrect lighting on faces. These can still happen on the Performance mode on the other consoles, it just appears more frequent here due to reduced shadows over those modes.
Starting with the Performance mode, pitting the PS5 against the Xbox Series X, the first big difference is the resolution is often higher on the PS5 than the Series X, with the PS5 sometimes having a 19% higher pixel count. In addition, the performance is slightly more stable on the PS5, but these tend to be memory or CPU-like stutters that crop up on Series X on occasion when entering a new area, or mid-battle as it appears to be calculating the impact of the dynamic dismemberment and deformation system in real time. That said, most of these are almost invisible with an fps graph, and they both perform brilliantly in all the sections I tested with that 60fps rate never being an issue. Considering the game’s delivery time and some of the bugs that did crop up, performance is largely a standout achievement. Additionally, the patches that have come since review code dropped have improved all formats, and the 60fps mode is very close now between the two consoles.
Ray Traced Mode
The extra graphical enhancements and increased resolution cost halve the framerate in this mode, which is actually more than a fair trade off as the increased per object motion blur and 3rd person action are not significantly hampered by the reduced input latency. And from the sections I tested, it really only skips a single frame here and there which would never be noticed without a frame-time graph. The review code was very stable on PS5 and slightly less so on Series S, but the Series X had more dips and judders that would have caused an issue. But applying the patch 1.2 and then 1.3 it now performs much better and is close to a locked 30fps to now be in the same range as the PS5. In this mode though the Series X has the resolution advantage now, with it often hitting 2880×1620 versus the PS5 often being at 2688×1512, giving a 14% resolution increase in this mode. The visual reductions do explain some of this, but like the small performance dips, the gap is not really apparent as the relatively high resolutions they all run at.
Xbox Series S
The Xbox Series S also runs very close to a locked 30fps, and I noted no big issues both with and without Motion Blur. It can dip more than the Quality mode on the other two consoles, but this has been improved with the pre-launch patch and now is as close to locked 30fps as you would hope for. I played some sections I thought would present some dips, but it was all very solid in general with only a handful of dips on the odd occasion, so this presents an excellent version of the game that manages to achieve the core aims of the team. The biggest standout is the much lower RAM pool does cause lower material quality and slow mip loading in gameplay and more so in cinematics, which is where they stand out the most.
The final piece of the jump scare jigsaw is the sound design, mixing and execution. The electric fizzle of an earthing cable. The hydraulic pressure of an opening door. Fans that create a Doppler effect as you walk closer, accompanied by screen shake and controller vibrations. The meaty squelch as heads pop, limbs break and much much more. The use of sound and silence is incredible as you can hear the screech of enemies in the distance, but sometimes the sound of silence scares you the most. Music is blended in at times, with a clear John Carpenter-like synth mix that has more than a nod to the Thing. Voice acting from all is top notch and although it can be cheesy and cliche at times, it often takes twists and turns you do not expect and is never holding your hand or running on too long. I often say that sound is 50 percent of the experience in games and films, and here that may be understating its impact. It is an impeccable piece of work from the sound team that complements the game’s art, technical, animation and storytelling.
Striking Distance has managed to achieve a feat we have not seen in a very long time, blending many mediums and archetypes into a seminal survival horror game. From a visual and audio perspective it is a leader for the current generation. Taking the UE4 engine and, in my opinion, improving on what we saw from the Matrix Awakens UE5 demo. The character models are now at the point of being photorealistic both in gameplay and cutscenes that you would struggle to tell a video from the game apart. Some bugs with death animations, clipping through scenery, and bad animation cycles aside, the team has managed to deliver one of the most visually striking, stable, impressive games this generation. As linear and within the lines of its own genre it may be, The Callisto Protocol still offers a visual tour de force and enough surprises to be worth your time across all formats. I just hope that the final Christmas present is that Series X gets its Ray Traced reflections added before the year is out.