With day one patches swiftly becoming the norm, it's easy to forget about the code pressed to the disc that actually ships to stores. Throw almost any modern single-player game into your console and it'll probably play just fine out of the box, even without an internet connection. This ease of use is what console gaming was founded upon, but the waters are becoming muddied. It's one thing to issue a patch designed to add a bit of polish to the end product, but it's something else entirely to ship a virtually broken game to store shelves. That brings us to The Evil Within - version 1.0.
We already know that the frame-rate in the current 1.01 version is rather unsteady throughout the game. What you may not know is that this is actually a massive improvement over the 'gold master' that's actually pressed onto the retail disc. As our coverage last week was based on digital delivery versions of the game we bought from PSN and Xbox Live, the issue didn't really come into focus for us until our personal physical copies arrived a few days later.
However, as you'll see in our performance video below, version 1.0 actually runs 30 to 40 per cent slower than the same game running with the day one patch. Scenes that manage to deliver an even 30fps in version 1.01 lurch along at an awful 20fps instead. Dips and stutters in the current version drop all the way down into the teens. It's so low, in fact, that we needed to modify the values of our frame-time graph when creating the performance video, in order to accommodate gameplay pauses of up to 100ms (and even then, sometimes The Evil Within stalls still further). No matter how poorly something like Daylight or Thief ran on PS4, the unpatched version of The Evil Within makes those games look positively smooth by comparison.
It gets worse. The original release doesn't even operate at native resolution. We pegged version 1.01 at 1920x768, delivering 1:1 pixel mapping by displaying at 1080p with large black bars framing the action. Version 1.0? It runs at 1600x900, anamorphically squished into a 1920x768 window. This approach produces a noticeably blurrier image, though it's still sharper overall than the patched Xbox One version. What's baffling, though, is that even with a lower resolution, the performance is so much lower all around than the patched product.
On top of all that, there are additional pauses and issues with texture streaming present in the original release. Texture pop-in is present in the patched version but rarely becomes an issue, while the original version is just a mess in this regard with much more obvious popping throughout. Cut-scenes that once transitioned smoothly from shot to shot now stutter as textures load in. Combining this issue with the poor performance and blurrier image quality produces an experience that feels borderline unplayable. Let's put it this way - it's virtually impossible to smoothly aim your weapon when the gameplay frame-rate is sitting pretty at 15fps.
What makes this issue somewhat worse is the fact that the PS4 patching system could result in some players spending time with the unpatched version of the game, negatively impacting their first impressions of the game. By design, the PlayStation 4 only triggers the download of a patch once a retail disc has been started for the first time. Only at this moment are users alerted to a potential patch requiring one to immediately return to the OS, quit the game, and restart it after the initial boot sequence. The idea is likely to get players into the game as quickly as possible. However, this does rely upon the initial version of the game being presented in a playable state.
So what is the takeaway from this? Well, looking at things in a more positive light, it's clear that the development team performed a bit of miracle here. To think that they shipped the game in this condition with the expectation that they could squeeze another 30 to 40 per cent of performance out of it by the launch is quite amazing. The final patched version has significant performance issues, but when you look at their starting point it suddenly feels like quite a remarkable accomplishment. The game has been in development for quite some time, but this certainly suggests that the team wasn't yet ready to ship. With such dramatic strides made between version 1.0 and 1.01, it certainly seems possible that the development team could improve things further and potentially clean up the remaining issues. We hope that it is given the opportunity to do so - especially when considering the lacklustre PC version of the game.
More importantly, this highlights an issue that has been building since patches were introduced on consoles; the notion that the 'gold master' is no longer the final code, and that games are shipping as unfinished products. Sure, multiplayer games are never going to be just right out of the gate and patches are inevitable in that space, but The Evil Within is a single-player experience through and through. There are people whose entire gameplay experience with The Evil Within could be completely compromised by this issue if they don't take the time to install the patch - but, more to the point, there are users who simply don't have their PS4s connected to the internet at all. They may be a minority at this point in time, but they don't deserve to play the game in this state. We can't help but wonder how this version of the game made it through Sony's QA department.
Certainly it seems that we are tiptoeing into something approaching the 'always online, always connected' scenario that Microsoft championed at the Xbox One launch - a scenario that a great many gamers categorically rejected. If version one of The Evil Within represents what a developer and publisher are willing to commit to disc, and what the platform holder's QA departments are willing to accept, we can't help but feel that we're on a slippery slope here. One day in the distant future, those servers delivering the patch updates may not be there any more. Version 1.0 of The Evil Within may be the only PS4 code available - and that's certainly not the way we would like to revisit the game.