Xbox One X has much to prove in the run-up to its November 7th launch. Forza Motorsport 7 demonstrates how beautifully 1080p first-party engines scale up to ultra HD resolutions, but what about taxing third party titles, typically rendering at 900p on base Microsoft hardware? Assassin's Creed Origins - showcased at Microsoft's E3 media briefing - presents compelling evidence that a beautiful 4K presentation isn't off the cards. We've got access to a pristine 4K source file of the gameplay segment, and even under close scrutiny, Origins holds up admirably.
And yet, for a machine marketed on 'true 4K' gaming, there is an argument that the game does fall short, as Ubisoft is deploying both checkerboard rendering and dynamic resolution to construct its 2160p framebuffer. But equally, those raw metrics don't tell the full story. In motion, edges appear sharp as they would at native 4K across most of the scene, and even up-close image quality passes for a native presentation. It's only when looking closely at texture detail that a slight softness is evident - just as it is on other 2160p checkerboard titles we've seen, like Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone. Image integrity is solid, with just minor artefacts around fast-moving objects - easy for us to see on still shots blown up to 300 per cent, but virtually impossible to detect in gameplay on a 4K TV.
The bottom line - Assassin's Creed Origins may not be a native, 'true' 4K game, but it really doesn't matter. Crucially, it looks great on a 4K screen, and if there is dynamic resolution in play in order to stabilise performance, we didn't pick up on anything that overtly compromises the image. Indeed, we extracted a few shots for pixel-counting analysis and found a 2160p result in all cases. The only caveat to apply is that the Xbox One X development can deploy an additional 10 per cent of GPU resources, as it has access to 44 compute units over the retail unit's 40. Whether these extras CUs were in play or not is unknown.
Of course, while the turnout on Xbox One X is the focus here, what we shouldn't forget is that this is a new Assassin's Creed title, with improvements baked into the game from the ground up. In this respect, Origins impresses with intricate environment detail and long draw distances standing out. Houses, trees, and other structures are visible for far into the distance, while pop-in caused by LOD transitions appears less aggressive than previous series entries. Texture quality is equally impressive, and elements such as brickwork and cloth are rich in detail, and we can assume that Xbox One X's 12GB of memory can comfortably accommodate the PC's top-end 4K textures.
Lighting is also improved over the previous game too, with indications that a new global illumination technique is used to add depth to locations featuring more ambient lighting. A distinct glow is noticeable as light bounces off the walls to the floor, and this infuses a little more atmosphere into the high contrast environments in the level we saw. Volumetric effects also enhance the bloom from sun light as it scatters across the sky, while soft lightshafts beam down through market stalls and houses at ground level. It's a good fit for the Egyptian setting, where the bright daytime sunlight allows the engine to showcase some nice volumetric effects and a solid level of dynamic range. This bodes well for the HDR support that is promised for the final release.
Less impressive are the animations and gameplay mechanics on show, which don't appear drastically reworked to the extent many were hoping for. Rather than a complete overhaul, first impressions paint Origins as more of a refinement of the familiar Assassin's Creed template. Buildings can be scaled to incredible heights, animals used to scope out targets, and combat still features an emphasis on evading and countering attacks. There are some new elements here, such as being able to pick up spent arrows from downed targets, and combat flows more freely than before, but these changes don't appear to re-write the familiar rule book and we wonder to what extent the core gameplay has been improved.
The fluidity of the main character's movements does see some improvement though, with smoother blending between key moves, leading to the main character interacting with the scenery more naturally when climbing and traversing buildings and treetops. However, some actions still appear quite stiff and lack the flow of movement compared to the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn or Uncharted 4. The same can be said of combat, where melee clashes present with greater fluidity than in previous Assassin's Creed titles.
Performance looks good too. Those watching Microsoft's conference feed may have noticed a regular stuttering across all gameplay feeds - Origins included - but this appears to have been a technical issue on the day. We've seen the code running first-hand, and frame-rates on the current code are looking solid at the target 30fps. This is good news considering we're looking at an alpha build, and even if the dev kit's extra power is being deployed, it's still a good base for further optimisation. The use of dynamic resolution scaling also has the potential to minimise large frame-rate drops in scenes where raw pixel throughput is the bottleneck, but based on the evidence so far along with the development time left before the title ships, Origins shouldn't disappoint here.All work and no play In praise of video game rest.
Of course, we've only seen a small snippet of the title so far, and it will be interesting to see how representative the gameplay and experience we've seen extends to the full experience. But for now, what's been shown paints a positive first impression for third-party development on Xbox One X, especially in terms of providing a solid UHD experience even if the presentation isn't native 4K.
Crucially, it shows that demanding engines that have traditionally implemented 900p resolutions can still get a significant visual boost that nicely simulates native 4K - and it also reaffirms that checkboarding works, and does so very well. The technique has matured since Ubisoft debuted it in Rainbow Six Siege, and to see 2160p as the target so early on is obviously positive. We'll have to wait to see how close the Xbox One X comes to matching the maxed-out PC experience in terms of effects work and 4K image quality, but the potential is certainly there for the experience to come much closer than we've previously seen before on console.