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Halo Wars 2: how Xbox One X compares to base hardware and PC

Digital Foundry's first look at X scalability on a Play Anywhere title.

If there's one aspect of Xbox One X coverage we've yet to explore in depth so far, it's how enhanced first-party titles compare with existing PC and Xbox One versions of the same game. For example, all marketing of the beautiful Forza Motorsport 7 has been on X hardware, while other titles such as Sea of Thieves have only been demoed thus far running on the Xbox One S. The good news is that at Gamescom, we were given access to an early build of Halo Wars 2 running on Xbox One X, and armed with 4K direct feed capture, we're able to offer an early look at scalability on an established Xbox Play Anywhere title.

The results are suitably impressive, but of course, we are looking at early Xbox One X code so we should expect to see some changes and improvements before the enhanced version releases in November. We only have really limited comparison points thus far - essentially based around the tutorial and the first mission - but there are areas where Xbox One X looks better than the maxed-out PC experience, though whether this down to work-in-progress lighting bugs or by deliberate design remains to be seen.

However, the crux of the matter is resolution and the extent to which Xbox One X scales up compared to base hardware - and this is somewhat crucial for a title like Halo Wars 2. Real-time strategy games are rich in detail, and the 'god's eye' view of the area benefits tremendously from the increased pixel-count, whether we're talking about intricate terrain detail, blaster fire or the units themselves. Comparing Halo Wars 2 on X to base hardware sees a dramatic boost to overall detail level; native 4K is delivered and it's an enormous upgrade over the 1080p original.

Here's our Halo Wars 2 Xbox One X video preview - do bear in mind that this captured from the Gamescom build and likely doesn't fully represent final code.

Beyond resolution, differences between base Xbox One, PC and the new X hardware are harder to find. One regret is that video cinematics are the same as they ever were - compressed 1080p in nature and nowhere near the quality of the native 4K rendering found in-game. There are also some curious lighting differences. In-game, a few light sources (specifically some vehicle and environment spotlights) are missing on Xbox One X which are present on the other systems. This may also explain why one scene in the tutorial appears to be resolving more shadow detail on Xbox One X - overhead spotlights present on the other versions are absent or at least changed on the Gamescom X build. Alternatively, the developer may have just tweaked lighting placement - certain scenes in the tutorial just look better on Xbox One X, as the comparison zoomer shows further on down this page.

But there's no doubt at all that the developer has delivered a full, native 4K presentation here and lighting differences aside, Xbox One X is essentially on par from a visual perspective with the PC game running fully maxed out at ultra HD resolution. Texture work and effects fidelity are a match, for example, and while direct comparison points are hard to come by with the material we have, there's no sense that prospective Xbox One X owners are going to be shortchanged in terms of the rich visuals.

However, as you might expect, the key difference compared to PC comes in terms of performance. As a real-time strategy title, Halo Wars 2 is very much CPU-driven in its most epic battles, so as expected, the Xbox One X build operates at 30fps with an adaptive sync in play, screen-tear manifesting when the engine can't meet its 33ms per-frame render budget.

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A boost to native 4K greatly improves image quality on Xbox One X over base hardware in terms of sharpness and clarity. Also note that alpha transparencies for foliage and other greenery are also rendered at full resolution on Xbox One X, matching top-end PC settings here.

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In this scene, the vehicle and railings casts more distinct shadows, while the lighting appears less abrasive. It may simply be the case that the two major spotlights are absent, causing the difference - or else there may be tweaks in this later build of the game.

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In the first mission, light sources are absent for elements like headlights on the Warthog and lamps on the buildings. It's an odd omission, suggesting that this is a random bug rather than an intentional change and may explain the changes we saw in the prior comparison shot.

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One aspect of the presentation that could be improved on both Xbox One X and PC concerns the cutscenes. Displayed as 1080p videos, these suffer from softness and compression artefacts, which stick out against the crisp, pristine 4K gameplay visuals.

In this sense, the game is utilising the exact same set-up found on the base Xbox One, and while performance dips are hard to come by in the early levels we took a look at, a particularly eventful explosive event did see the frame-rate dip beneath its target. There's a distinct lack of direct A to B testing possible in a dynamic title like this, but the sense is that Xbox One X is either on par or slightly slower than the base system - but of course, let's remember that this is an unfinished build not really designed for full-on Digital Foundry scrutiny.

As things stand, first impressions suggest that Halo Wars 2 looks set to deliver exactly what Microsoft set out to achieve with the title - a fully featured port with a 4x boost to resolution that offers a night and day improvement to clarity, delivering particular benefits for this style of game. In revisiting Halo Wars 2 across the existing formats, the X code is offering PC's best presentation - or something very close to it - and only falls short in terms of 60fps and controller support.

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Inevitably, these are two areas where PC still commands a big advantage for this style of game. The consoles' 30fps target lacks the precision feel and fluidity of the PC build running at twice the frame-rate, and fast lateral movement across the terrain is significantly more jerky on the console versions. Similarly, Halo Wars 2 on Xbox One and X lacks keyboard and mouse support, an input system that dramatically improves the real-time strategy genre in general, and this is obviously fully implemented on the existing PC game.

As things stand, the takeaway from our initial Halo Wars 2 hands-on is almost reassuringly non-eventful. The key sell for Xbox One X enhanced titles is that you're getting a free upgrade for your existing library that leverages the new hardware with 4K displays in mind, and lighting changes/bugs aside, that looks to be exactly what's delivered here in this early build. We'll be reporting back at launch with a more robust test of Halo Wars 2's performance level and visual feature set, but thus far, we like what we see.

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