Update 25/7/14 12:40: Frame-pacing issues - manifesting as judder during gameplay - have now been fixed for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One betas, and while Xbox 360 and PS3 still exhibit the issue, that should be resolved in the final game.
With no PC version announced as yet, it's fair to say that the PlayStation 4 version of Destiny shows Bungie's new Destiny engine in the best light. Producing some of the most impressive dynamic lighting and post-process effects seen so far on console, it could be suggested that the last-gen consoles are really going to struggle in delivering an equivalent experience, but Bungie built its new engine with scalability in mind, and the release of a PS3 beta alongside its console flagship suggests a high level of confidence in its last-gen offerings.
With the engine confidently described as the bedrock for all upcoming projects over the next decade, it's uncertain how many more games in the Destiny series will see last-gen support using this tech. However, we're off to a very convincing start with what's been shown so far. Weighing in with a 5.6GB download for its beta build (against the PS4's 13.2GB), the PS3 version shows how tightly Bungie intends to optimise for all its ports come launch day in September.
There are some obvious cutbacks from its PS4 sibling, of course. Put side-by-side in slow motion, courtesy of our comparison video below, world detail is pared back noticeably. The density of foliage, rocks and rubble is lowered - and many of these details fade in at a closer range on PS3 via a cascade. Geometric elements along the wall, comprising the outskirts of Old Russia, are also removed outright from the PS3 version. Even so, geometry across the scene is otherwise a match between the two - and even the enemy count is upheld for the last-gen release.
Overall, the PS3's delivery of the game world is surprisingly close to the PS4's. The key difference here is in visibility though, where level-of-detail scaling and pop-in prove to be a bigger issue on the former - especially when riding a Sparrow at top speeds through the Steppes area. Running at an internal resolution of 1024x624, and backed by a heavy-handed FXAA post-process, image quality takes an inevitable nose-dive compared to the pristine 1080p output on PS4. With the PS3 pushing out just 30 per cent of the total pixel count - creating a much muddier image in the process - this easily stands as the most eye-opening difference between the two.
It's a sacrifice, but one that pays off in other areas. The consistency of the game's lighting engine, for example, is thankfully upheld on PS3. Lakes and waterlogged mud tracks reflect the entire world accurately across both PS3 and PS4 - with water shaders slightly improved on PS4 to render fuller waves and ripples. Curiously, downed enemies and bullet trails are the only elements not being mirrored in water, though this is a trait common to both platforms. Meanwhile, Destiny's full day-night cycle makes the cut for PS3 too, though lighting indoors is simplified in spots, via the axing of light sources.
After the sub-720p resolution, the next most glaring downgrade on PS3 is in shadow quality. Sunlit areas - such as the Old Russia overground and the outdoors segment of the Tower hub - show acceptable soft shadows at each Guardian's feet. It all changes around indoor dungeons though; direct spotlights cause shadows to appear with a nasty aliasing artifact, with no filtering to help.
These flickering, messy shadows are undoubtedly the biggest eyesore in the PS3 version, but sightings of them are thankfully limited to interior areas. Meanwhile, the PS4's shadows appear dithered, and their coverage is complete across the landscape. By comparison, the PS3 has to make another cut-back here; patches of shade for foliage, and even around fences, are removed outright to produce a brighter landscape overall on the last-gen beta. Characters and buildings still react to light logically at least, with no major compromise.
While largely unchanged on visual level from its alpha state, the PS4 beta is achieves some impressive enhancements to its lighting. Crepuscular rays are among those that make the cross-gen leap to PS3, allowing lines of shadow to streak past any object - such as your ship - obscuring the moon's lighting. A JJ Abrams-style anisotropic lens flare and corona bloom also embellish smaller directional lights - though the intensity of each is muted by comparison to the PS4.
The treatment of effects is unusual on PS3; alpha used for smoke effects during multiplayer is markedly lower resolution here - causing a distortion to the outlines of foreground objects. But on the other hand, alpha and particle effects produced from guns and grenades remain largely as-is - though the spread of alpha is hugely reduced for splash effects. Meanwhile, PS4 owners get all the expected physics-based bells and whistles, with dynamic objects, ragdolls, and cloth physics all making it in.
In terms of core asset work, normal maps take a hit in resolution too - though this is largely unnoticed unless we stop to look downwards. The downgrade takes its toll on the skyboxes most noticeably though - an area that has come to define Bungie's visual flourish. Unfortunately, distant clouds around the Tower hub area appear more two-dimensional on PS3, with layers of the background and lighting stripped away.
With that said, the PS3 visuals - even in Destiny's beta form - hold up reassuringly well given the seven-year age difference between the platforms. Nips and tucks have been made - certainly - but the look of Old Russia still feels consistent.
Performance on PS3 is also a proud point in its favour. Similar to the next-gen beta, it achieves a locked 30fps with v-sync engaged. Only the odd streaming stutter while riding a fast vehicle interrupts our reading here, where otherwise the two Sony consoles produce like-for-like results.
Unfortunately, the PS3 version suffers from the very same frame-pacing issues witnessed on PS4 - an uneven spread of frames that, while averaging at 30fps, causes a stutter sensation on screen. This points to a bug inherent in the engine itself, and we hope to see it fixed for all versions come launch (a NeoGAF post from a long-term Bungie employee looks promising on that front). The use of full-screen motion blur on PS3 does soften the bouts of stuttering to a certain extent, but for the sake of the multiplayer experience - which is also affected - the game would clearly benefit from attention in this area.
Overall, it's hard not to come away impressed by the Destiny PS3 beta. Yes, the textures, lighting and effects are dialled back to varying degrees and the image quality takes a noticeable hit when switching back and forth with its technical successor. But the world still looks consistent - and if Bungie's aim is to prioritise a stable 30fps experience during both campaign and multiplayer, this is already a job well done.
And let's remember that this is beta code. While we assume that this release is broadly representative of the final game, it can only get better from here on out in terms of bug-fixes and optimisation. Our experience with Watch Dogs suggested that last-gen was on its way out - that the old consoles just couldn't keep up with the demands of the new gaming era. Destiny may have its compromises, but the beta code suggests a solid, feature-complete cross-gen experience. Two out of four versions played so far look stunning and we're looking forward to testing out the Xbox One and 360 versions released later this week.