There was a time when the first-person shooter was considered the exclusive domain of the PC, a bygone era where the games console was thought unworthy - and indeed incapable - of hosting a competitive multiplayer FPS. Halo changed everything, and in the process Bungie didn't just redefine a genre - it made Xbox and then Xbox 360 the home of the console shooter. 13 years on from the release of Halo, things have changed. The studio is no longer exclusive to Microsoft and its latest game is a multi-platform project - but Destiny is still special in that it's almost certainly Bungie's Xbox 360 swan song. Has it gone out with a bang?
This week's release of the Destiny beta on Xbox platforms allows us to assess Bungie's work on "home territory" after some exceptional PlayStation 4 and last-gen PS3 code. Yesterday, we saw that, resolution apart, the Xbox One version of Destiny is effectively identical to its PlayStation 4 counterpart - with compelling evidence that the studio has already levelled the playing field with regard to the pixel-count differential. We went into the Xbox 360 beta wondering whether Bungie's years of experience in working with the Microsoft platform may have given the developer an edge in delivering a version of Destiny that improves upon its already impressive PS3 work.
The answer is straightforward enough: the Xbox 360 game features some level of refinement over its PlayStation 3 counterpart, but what's clear is that Bungie has chosen a range of compromises that suit both platforms and there are far more similarities than there are differences. In almost every major case that truly matters to the core gameplay experience, the two releases are very similar.
The Xbox 360 version features the same 1024x624 resolution as the PlayStation 3 game, with the same utilisation of FXAA anti-aliasing; the end result is a release robbed of the precision detail found in the new-wave console code - put simply, it looks very blurry. We see the same trades in terms of detail reduction too: view distance is pared back in a seemingly identical manner (though as the thumbnail below shows, lighting LODs may be different) while environment decoration sees the same nips and tucks on both of the last-gen platforms.
One of the most noticeable cutbacks concerns the way that the last-gen consoles deal with alpha transparencies - smoke and atmospherics specifically. These effects are very taxing on the GPU, and a well-known technique on PS3 involves rendering these effects at a much lower resolution, then upscaling them in the final framebuffer composite. In areas where hard edges bisect with the effect, you tend to see very low-res saw-tooth edges.
Destiny is lavish with alpha, and this could produce some pretty grim results, so Bungie's solution here is to blend edges, resulting in an extremely heavy blur on some elements - most pronounced in the banner-man shot below. Curiously, Bungie has chosen to deploy this on both Xbox 360 and PS3, despite the Microsoft console's fast eDRAM which - in the past - has been shown to handle effects like this at full resolution.
However, there is additional refinement in the Xbox 360 version, specifically in the way that Bungie handles dynamic shadows. Again, these are very intensive on the graphics hardware and the studio has compromised on PlayStation 3, with very hard-edged, low-resolution shadows. The Xbox 360 version acquits itself more proficiently here, with both higher resolution and smoother edges.
There's also evidence in the beta code suggesting that the PlayStation 3 version of Destiny operates with some lower-quality texture work compared to the Xbox 360 game. The veteran Sony console's split pool of RAM has often caused issues for developers, but these mostly disappeared across the last console generation as game-makers became more proficient at background streaming art into memory from the hard drive. What's interesting here is that the overall presentation of the PS3 game appears brighter, which may suggest a white crush effect of sorts that diminishes detail resolved. That said, the amount of detail lost compared to Xbox 360 really does point towards lower-quality assets. Additionally, texture streaming appears to be a little faster on the Xbox 360.
Other than that, Destiny on Xbox 360 looks and feels remarkably close to its last-gen sibling. In terms of overall presentation and polish, it doesn't quite feel as though it's up to the same standard as Bungie's last platform-exclusive title - Halo Reach - but it's an interesting example of the trades a developer has to make as it moves away from platform-exclusive game-making and into the cross-gen era. The end result is even more remarkable bearing in mind that Bungie had to get to grips with the technical curiosities of the PS3 architecture, while at the same time learning how to get the best from the new wave of Sony and Microsoft consoles.
Destiny on Xbox 360 may well be Bungie's last-gen swan song, and while it may lack the singular focus a first-party title has, the studio deserves kudos for the fact that somehow - miraculously - the core of the PS4 and Xbox One experience has been successfully translated to both of the last-gen versions. The cutbacks made are intelligent and not overly obtrusive - only really distracting when travelling at speed across the terrain, where the pop-in is most noticeable.
Based on the beta at least, game content appears to be feature-complete, and even elements of the technology that might have been dumped - such as the changing time of day with all of the dynamic lighting and shadowing challenges that represents - are still retained. Certainly, the key interface between player and game feels just as smooth and responsive as it does on the PS4 and Xbox One, and enemy volume doesn't feel in any way reduced. A first-person shooter is defined by its combat, and in that regard, both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions feel as fast and frenetic as their more technologically empowered counterparts.
All of which is summed up nicely by the performance analysis. Dipping into a number of the single-player/co-op levels, we're looking at sustained readings at the 30fps mark. You'll note that Xbox 360 version still exhibits the frame-pacing problems we noted in the PS4 alpha and beta. We reported yesterday that the issue is resolved in the top-end versions, but game patching isn't quite so immediate for the last-gen consoles, so it's still there for the time being.
However, we've no reason to believe that the same fix can't be deployed for the older console hardware, and assuming it is, we should be on for the same locked 30fps action we're enjoying now on PS4 and Xbox One - which is marred only by the occasional background streaming snafu when travelling at speed over terrain. It's not too intrusive and hopefully something that can be addressed in the final game - bandwidth may be limited on the last-gen systems, but they do have the advantage of being able to stream assets simultaneously from both hard drive and optical disc, something we saw in GTA 5, for example.
Just like the PlayStation 3 version, multiplayer gameplay doesn't faze the Xbox 360 either, even with its full complement of 12 simultaneous players. Once again, we're looking at identical performance levels to the single-player co-op mode, with the game just waiting for the fix to eliminate the stutter in order to give us that locked level of performance to ensure sustained, consistent response.
It takes some time to adjust to the aesthetic Bungie has chosen for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Destiny. There's a sense that the studio has chosen to shy away from high frequency texture detail in order to complement the clearly reduced resolution. On first firing up the beta, the blurred presentation can seem rather jarring - it doesn't quite look like anything you've played before. The raw pixel count says 1024x624, but if anything the experience feels lower. Destiny on Xbox 360 isn't as attractive or as detailed as Halo Reach, but those are the trades that need to be made - and there's certainly no lack of ambition in the gameplay served up.
Bungie has focused on what matters - the scale and scope of its gameplay. It has a vision for the new era of the first-person shooter designed for much more capable hardware, but somehow Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are invited to the party. Quality of gameplay shines through to the point where the obvious visual impairments don't feel intrusive to the overall experience. You can play Destiny on last-gen hardware and transition across to PS4 and Xbox One feeling completely at home with the game - even your character progress transfers seamlessly back and forth between the two.
And when you do make the leap from the last-gen hardware to the new waves of console - boy, you're in for a treat. The gameplay's the same, but the quality of the visuals is more than worth the upgrade. It's the full-fat experience without the compromises and it's simply beautiful and wonderfully polished. If this is to be the final last-gen release from Bungie it is a fitting one - a game that introduces you to the possibilities of the next generation, working as hard as possible to transition you from a glorious past to a tantalising future.