PlayStation 3 emulation tested: revisiting Metal Gear Solid 4 in 4K 60fps with RPCS3

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There are a host of PlayStation 3-exclusive games that remain locked to the system – console-exclusive titles that sold millions of copies in their day and are no longer playable natively on modern systems. . Sony itself has a system in place to make them accessible at least – the streaming-based PlayStation Now – but what you’re watching are compromised versions of the original experience, marred by image quality issues and latency. However, there is a way forward, albeit for a limited audience. The open-source RPCS3 emulator gives PC users access to the PlayStation 3 library, and I played Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots at 4K resolution at 60fps, with 16x anisotropic filtering. It’s a remarkable showcase of what could be, whether via local emulation on a PlayStation console, or via a Bluepoint-class remaster.

We at Digital Foundry always want the highest frame rates possible with new game releases, but also understand that’s not always possible, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is an interesting case because it’s a game which teased us with the possibility of 60 frames per second only to trample our dreams with its eventual release. Flashback to the Tokyo Game Show in 2005 and we saw a game trailer running flat out at 60fps – a far cry from the final release, which mostly ran in a 20-30fps window. However, the game was running unlocked, so there were spare sections where 60fps was possible – a teaser of the game it was meant to be.

Metal Gear Solid 4 in 4K resolution, 60fps? We got it working via emulation, but it wasn’t easy!

This trailer was produced before we received the actual PS3 development material. It was probably built on a powerful PC and even then it might have been pre-rendered given the perfect frame rate. While I have no idea what Kojima Productions’ development situation is, I’ve spoken with other developers who were involved in the PS3’s early days and all of them suggested that the final hardware was a step back from what was had been promised. So bringing visuals of this caliber to the PlayStation 3 would be no small task.

Metal Gear Solid 4 isn’t just an example of a game that’s essentially locked to its original host system, it’s also a title that will benefit immensely from the resources of more modern hardware to bring us closer to that original vision – the genre Something Microsoft has achieved through some of its compatibility team’s preservation efforts: higher frame rates, higher resolution. And that’s where RPCS3 comes in. After years of work, this open-source PC emulator can boot virtually any game and it’s capable of some remarkable feats in terms of improving on original PlayStation 3 titles.

It’s not a walk in the park bearing in mind that the PS3 was arguably the last of the “exotic” console designs due to its Cell processor – a collaboration between Sony, IBM and Toshiba. While the central “PPU” core and even the Nvidia RSX GPU are relatively simple designs, Cell’s latent power comes from its satellite SPU coprocessors, capable of phenomenal performance in their day. RPCS3 emulates SPUs on the CPU, and the more developer SPU used in a given game, the higher the game’s emulation load at stock speeds, not to mention the performance multiplier we want to achieve 60 frames per second.

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Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
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PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.
RPCS3
PlayStation 3
Metal Gear Solid 4 – RPCS3 emulation at 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering, compared to original PlayStation 3 (720p capture, 1024×768 native revolution.

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This means that to run Metal Gear Solid 4 at 60 frames per second requires a lot of computing power. To produce this video on this page I used a Core i9 12900K – not at its stock settings. RPCS3 is able to exploit the acceleration opportunities provided by the AVX-512 instruction set – which Intel has unfortunately disabled on the latest versions of the chip. Luckily, I have an older processor that offers this functionality – accessible by disabling the slower “efficiency” cores. To cover GPU requirements, I used an RTX 3090, but would expect slower graphics hardware to achieve the same result – PS3 emulation is heavily CPU limited.

Even that is not enough, however, and I used a custom RPCS3 version of CipherXOF which introduces a number of performance improvements specifically aimed at improving the frame rate in MGS4. The immediate impressions upon starting the game are remarkable: the Kojima team has always produced artwork that retains its quality at higher resolutions and 4K brings out the best in these assets. The 16x anisotropic filtering also adds hugely to the quality: in hindsight, texture filtering on PlayStation 3 wasn’t a particularly strong aspect of presentation in this and many other titles. However, it’s the big frame rate improvement – and frame rate consistency – that makes the biggest difference. There is indeed the feeling that this is how the game was meant to be viewed and there are also gameplay benefits via much tighter control with lower input lag.

That said, the emulated experience is certainly not perfect – some of the heavier areas have noticeable performance drops. I spent a lot of time tweaking the settings and looking for solutions, but I couldn’t overcome the drops in these footage. At least VRR most solves the problem if you are using such a screen. I was impressed that so many of the custom effects worked well – and the render resolution also dramatically increased the quality of the shadows – but there are a range of glitches and visual discontinuities that don’t quite work. In the embedded video, you’ll get a much better perspective on the challenges I faced and the range of minor bugs and issues I encountered.

We located a 720p resolution version of the TGS 2005 reveal trailer, then used machine learning to remove compression artifacts and restore the original 60fps. See what you think!

While emulation offers fantastic insight into how PlayStation 3 games can evolve beyond the limitations of the original hardware, there can be issues – there isn’t the same kind of quality assurance that there is from a version entirely curated by the platform holder. That said, based on the conversations I’ve had with the emulator developers and the many technological hurdles they’ve overcome over the years, I think it’s only a matter of time before RPCS3 can offer full playback without problems. Even now, we’re close to an experience that feels like a native PC game.

However, the computational effort to emulate SPUs still means that exceeding the performance of the original PlayStation 3 is something that requires significant CPU power. Many RPCS3 fixes are available to improve performance – and the key to this is reducing SPU load, so many of these “optimizations” involve removing SPU tasks, such as GPU post-processing. And there are a few titles that barely hit SPUs, so they’re already doing well – Demon’s Souls is the poster child, and Ridge Racer 7 is another. But that’s the fundamental challenge facing any official PS3 emulator from Sony, targeting the PS5 – Cell emulation remains extremely difficult and certainly based on the RPCS3 at this time, it exceeds the power of the Zen2 processor of consoles. the current generation.

As for MGS4 itself, well, revisiting this game opened my eyes – it confirmed what I suspected – that this is the weakest entry in the series. It just tries to answer too many questions but gets bogged down in cutscenes and nanomachines. I enjoyed it a lot in 2008, but a proper reissue would require some serious changes, I think. It’s a shame too because the core mechanics are great – with more real-life gameplay and a reduction in the number of cutscenes, it could have been a great experience, but it’s just too unbalanced as it is. Still, it was a worthwhile experience: my PC is top of the line, but I’ve had great experiences with Motorstorm, Killzone 3 and many more – and I’ll continue to follow RPCS3’s progress very closely.

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