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Xbox One X Killer Instinct delivers the first 4K console fighting game

Head to head with PC and base Xbox One.

Cast your mind back to Xbox One's launch in 2013 and a few big games stand out, with Killer Instinct one of them. As Microsoft's flagship fighting game, it offered a long overdue revival of Rare's classic franchise, enhanced with the latest 3D console technology. Every impact forced an explosion of alpha and lit particle effects - an obvious upgrade on Xbox One over what was ever possible on Xbox 360 - and it all ran at 60 frames per second. It was a sample of what the machine could bring to the table graphically this generation. But there was a downside: Killer Instinct - at launch - ran at just 720p on Xbox One.

Of course, the game was later patched to run at 900p. But even early on, it highlighted a limit to the original Xbox One's handling of higher resolutions, a point reinforced by other 720p games at launch, like Battlefield 4. For those wanting to see Killer Instinct at the best image quality possible, you had to wait for PC - unlocking resolutions up to 4K. That is, until the Xbox One X patch that lands with the hardware's launch, on November 7th.

And this is a highly welcome upgrade. Killer Instinct will be the first console fighter to ever run at a native 4K. With that, Microsoft can well and truly put any criticism of image quality in Killer Instinct to rest - the game looks amazing. Compared to the 900p image on a standard Xbox One, the vault in quality is highly impressive. Fixed at 3840x2160 all the way through, it sets a precedent on console, in a world where PS4 Pro's best efforts seem to top out at 1440p with titles such as Injustice 2 and King of Fighters 14.

A three-way comparison showing Killer Instinct running on Xbox One, Xbox One X and PC.

Of course, it helps that the original KI was a launch title with a 2013 vintage. It may be abundant in particle effects, but games like Injustice 2 still push the boat out further in model detail, animation, and the approach to materials and lighting. For Killer Instinct, it's impressive for one main reason. Jumping from 900p to 4K involves a 5.76x increase in pixel count for Xbox One X over the older machine. That's 5.76x times the GPU load, and Killer Instinct achieves it despite only having a 4.6x boost in GPU power to work with.

The result is inevitably a much cleaner, crisper image. But, while it looks highly impressive in motion, there are some things the Xbox One X patch doesn't do. It is effectively a straight port, with none of the additional enhancements found in, say, Forza Motorsport 7. Sadly, everything is otherwise exactly as it appeared before, with the exception of texture filtering, which scales in quality with the 4K boost. Again, there are no real surprises here, as it's exactly what you get with the existing PC version, which maxes out as Xbox One settings - though arbitrary resolutions are selectable.

It's a well-optimised PC port, though. A basic i3 processor with a PS4-like GPU such as the R7 370 can run the game at these high presets and 1080p60, so with the Xbox One X's horsepower thrown at the game, it's clear to see how 4K rendering is possible. Take the frame-rate for example. Xbox One X's performance at 4K is absolutely bang on 60fps 99 per cent of the time, with v-sync engaged as well. It's not a completely solid read-out though as there are drops when those heavy alpha effects kick in for special moves. As an average though, 60fps is largely what you're looking at. And to cherry pick some worst-case moments during those intensive special moves, you do momentary get drops to 50-60fps.

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Xbox One X delivers on its 4K promise! Killer Instinct renders at a native 3840x2160 on Microsoft's new machine - 5.76x the number of pixels pushed by a regular Xbox One's 900p image.

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Up close, the change to Xbox One X hardware doesn't affect shaders and texture quality - but undoubtedly edges are cleaner at 4K.

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Looking to the ground, texture filtering also gets an increase in quality on Xbox One X, proportionate to the resolution bump.

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A few curious changes crop up in the transition to Xbox One X; the hue of this scene changes, though fundamentally the effects-work is the same..

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Equally, particle effects and motion blur are present on both Xbox One machines with no change.

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Characters are realised at the same quality level. However, note a small difference in reflection quality towards the horizon.

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Moving to PC running at 4K and max settings, there's barely anything to distinguish it from Xbox One X's results.

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One final shot to prove the point; PC at 4K is equivalent to the experience you get on Xbox One X - no more, no less.

There's scope for improvement by release then, but as things stand, the drops here aren't egregious enough to break the game, especially given they kick in during special moves - where the user has no input anyway. The turnout is positive. Tellingly, on PC, 4K was always in the running for GPUs with a similar power profile to Xbox One X. Take AMD's RX 580 as a case in point; the card capably handles Killer Instinct's top settings at 4K and 60fps, and even rides out those special moves with no drops. It's essentially a six teraflop GPU, and though lower on bandwidth next to Xbox One X, it hits the mark. Notably, both PC and Xbox One X versions still run HUD elements at 1080p, when suitably upgraded assets would have been welcome.

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Overall, the developers set out to achieve a particular task with the Xbox One X version of Killer Instinct - to take a 900p game and run it at native 4K, and that's exactly what has been delivered. It's a straightforward patch, tying in to the original promise of the console with that 4K resolution and texture filtering boost. The performance dips - such as they are - do not impact gameplay, but we would still like to see them ironed out before release. And at that point, this 4K upgrade gives us a good reason to revisit the game years after it first hit store shelves. With the Season Three expansion, Killer Instinct's character roster is now overflowing with options, where originally the game lacked diversity - and Xbox One X support offers a great excuse to take another look at the game.

Is it the best looking fighter on console then? Certainly by the numbers, it hands in the cleanest image quality possible for an ultra HD display - it's unmatched. And given the wide use of 1440p for fighters on PS4 Pro, it'll be fascinating to see what Injustice 2 runs at on Microsoft's machine, not to mention Tekken 7, which tops out at 1080p on Sony's supercharged console. For now though, Killer Instinct is a great demo for the Xbox One X's launch. As a fighter there may be more cinematic, technically advanced games on the market, but if you're looking to scratch that 4K itch, this is a great option.

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