The triumphs and horrifying failures of realistic faces in video games

Oddjob? Bodgejob, more like. Fnar fnar

Faces are one of the first things a human being learns to recognise, right after eyes. Or so I am told. Mind you, I was also told my home-made 'Dalek Hat' was fine when I was a kid and now it's obvious that the meticulously-sellotaped eyepiece looked like something completely different. But getting back to the point, there's no denying there is something in our brains programmed to tell us how we should react to a face.

From the smiling Coca-Cola Santa to that famous 'scream' mask, we are attracted to glowing, happy faces, and repulsed by those that aren't quite right. It's the 'uncanny valley', a much-referenced phenomenon first noted in robots, where a synthesised face looks almost completely lifelike, but crucially not quite, causing our minds to assume we're in fact looking at a corpse. Lovely. Sadly, most realistic video game faces fall into this 'ohmygodkillitwithfire' category. So here are some choice examples of realistic game faces that get it right, and some that sadly do not, for your own face's amusement.

Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons (Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare)

Oh, virtual Kevin Spacey.
How good is your cut-scene facey?
Ears of leather and skin so pasty.
New-gen tech has made you tasty.

Talk some more with all your mouth.
I want to watch the words come out.
Angered brow and lips that pout.
Spacey, you've got facial clout.

Cole Phelps (L.A. Noire)

Still screens cannot do justice to the realistic nature of L. A. Noire's faces. It's all in their movement. My god, that facial movement. It makes my face move too. Eyebrows up, jaw down. Admittedly not in shock, but more to convey the remark: "those faces look really good". Sorry if that's not quite as extreme as you were expecting.

You're never fooled into thinking you are watching a film, but it's closer than most games have come. The animation of jowls, eyebrows and tongues is so lifelike, everyone who sees it says something about how good it is. Even if you can kinda tell that the facial mo-cap was done with the actors' faces held in place in front of a static camera and then added to mo-capped body movement. But you can't have everything.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End)

Pirates of the Caribbean was released early on in the last-generation. It wasn't very good, especially on PS3 where even its best bit - the graphics - were comparatively arrful. But even on PS3, it still boasts some of the finest facial likenesses of any game ever. As one incredibly handsome and canny GR staffer said back in 2007, "Never before has a game looked so much like its source material". He was right. Just look at Captain Jack up there. It's Captain Jack Sparrow! In your TV! Mincing around with a poke of your thumb. Magnificent.

Granted, those eyes aren't quite as full of life as they could be, but even so, you're looking at some of the highest-quality, realistic facial modeling in gaming, some 7 years on. I'm impressed. And I'm STILL annoyed that we didn't get the Armada of the Damned sequel. That looked so good.

Lara Croft (Tomb Raider 2012)

Lara has been an example of exceptional character modelling since Tomb Raider Legend in 1996. But her face in the 2012 reboot is magnificent. In fact, her weird hamster cheeks in the Definitive Edition (which I swear have been toned down somewhere along the line) still give me Tales of the Riverbank flashbacks. But the original 360/PS3/PC version's Lara is simply exceptional.

There's emotion and softness in her features, but also anger and strength when needed. Her hair is the stuff of cheesey (and fake) shampoo commercials, especially with Tress FX enabled on PC. And her pretty features get so realistically grubby, I bet anyone's mum would automatically reach for their handkerchief and spit on it, ready to clean her up.

Danny Welbeck (FIFA 15)

It would have been too easy to run a real photograph of a famous footballer and then write words about how unrealistic and inhuman their face looks. So I'm not going to do that. Definitely not because I'm scared of being sued by a famous footballer for suggesting they look like a poor imitation of a person. Nosiree.

So instead, let's celebrate how damn fantastic FIFA 15's faces are, with the talented Mr Welbeck here as a case in point. Every Premiership footballer had their face scanned into the game in minute detail and the results speak for themselves. Well, not literally, that would be so weird. There are still some zombie eyes going on at times, but the realistic skin textures, light reflection and even facial animations make FIFA 15 the standard-bearer for faces in sports games. Oh, and that little twitch of the linesman's cheek as he holds out his offside flag? Beautiful.

Reiko Nagase (Ridge Racer V)

Here's an interesting one. When PS2 was launched, it has a severe problem with 'jaggies'. Until developers figured out how to smooth the edges of 3D shapes, everything glistened with staircase-like diagonal lines. Couple that with the fact most of the crap examples of realistic faces on this list are found in launch titles and Ridge Racer's poster girl should have stood zero chance of convincing on PS2.

And yet, she does. The Reiko Nagase of the real-time Ridge Racer V intro is beautiful. Her expression is soft. Her smile is captivating. Her hair may be an aliased mess but it flutters in the breeze made by a supercar zooming by. She is sensational. And while she is clearly a computer-generated woman, that's arguably why she works so well. The realism is in her characterisation, not pure photorealism.

Leon Kennedy (Resident Evil 6 version)

Resident Evil 6's Leon is not as aesthetically likeable as Resi 4's slightly stylised Leon. He looks different. A bit too chinny, perhaps. But there's no denying the quality of his rendering. That stubble looks sharp enough to cut yourself on. That is one heck of a computer-generated human face. And if proof were needed, look at how far ahead these real-time visuals are of the 1998 pre-rendered version from Resi 2.

Fun fact that everyone already knows: Leon's hair looks like a '90s throwback because the partnership of Leon and Claire in Resi 2 was a thinly-disguised tribute to Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. Who appeared together in Titanic, or something.

Roger Federer (Virtua Tennis 4)

So we've seen the good. Here comes the bad. Virtua Tennis started a fine tradition of horrifying 'realistic' character models, and the zombie Tim Henman is well documented here on GamesRadar. But more modern iterations have wandered so far into the uncanny valley, they're staying at the uncanny inn, eating uncanny soup from the uncanny chef's uncanny specials board.

Wonder why all the Virtua Tennis players are affected in this way? It's a virus. Just read this transcript of a conversation between virtual Roger Federer and virtual Andy Murray from a Virtua Tennis match that totally didn't happen in my mind: "Are you OK, Roger? You don't look at all well. In fact I think your ear's about to fall off. You should probably have a lie down. No, I don't want a cuddle. Hey! Not so bitey! Oh god that was quite deep. Roger, stop! Stop, Roger! Rogeaaaaaaaargh!" See? explains a lot.

Officer Kidman (The Evil Within)

I'm not sure if officer Kidman here is supposed to be amazingly beautiful or not. All I can see is an awkward mask of polygons. Like the candy shell of an M&M, only paler. She does share some facial characteristics with her voice actress, Jennifer Carpenter, but the key difference is that Jennifer's face is lovely and smiley and soft. Kidman's is like porcelain.

There is plenty of technical merit to the faces in The Evil Within. They have similarly slinky locks of hair locks to Leon Kennedy, which is understandable given their lineage. But the overall effect is not one of ultra-convincing realism. Let's just say that.

Joanna Dark (Perfect Dark Zero)

Perhaps it's unfair to point to a launch game on Xbox 360 as an example of bad faces, but it has to be done. Joanna here must have had countless hours spent making sure she was a worthy face of a new generation, fit to launch the then-new second Xbox. But she still looks like an eyebrow piercing might actually deflate her.

And let's not forget everyone else in the game. The poor, poor souls. Cursed by the Plastic Demon, doomed to walk the low-poly world for evermore with hideous plastic masks in place of their faces. Shudder.

Anyone from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Oblivion is a fantastic game. At times incredibly beautiful, though now surpassed by Skyrim. But no matter how much emergent gameplay magic you experience on your travels through Tamriel, there is nothing more certain to shatter the illusion of a fantasy world than talking to someone.

What happened to everyone? And why do they stand so still when they talk to you? It's almost as though they want your eyes to examine and baulk at every awful contour. Things did improve for Skyrim, certainly, but I can never forget Oblivion. Indeed, Oblivion is probably the best place for these faces.

Seen better? Or far, far worse?

Sorry to scare you with that image up there. It's the inside of one of the NPCs in Heavy Rain's shopping mall scene. So not supposed to be a face you'd actually see. More an inside-out one you're not. But what's the most realistic or horrifying face you've ever seen in a game? Let us know in the comments.

And if you're looking for more, check out 12 of your favourite game characters face-swapped with Nicholas Cage and Heavy Rain: Posh British Version. Even though most people hate it. But not me. Best video EVER.

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine,, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.