One year on, what have the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 delivered in real terms? Graphical complexity, image definition and fidelity are a night and day difference compared to their last-gen counterparts, with Sony commanding the technological high ground, but across the current library of titles, there's a very strong argument that we haven't seen anything like the same level of improvement in terms of the actual gameplay experience.
Before we go on, it is worth stressing that this doesn't mean that we haven't enjoyed some superb games in the last year. The fact is that we've seen some beautiful examples of how improved visuals - not to mention the 10x improvement in available RAM - can supercharge existing gameplay concepts and reinvigorate franchises. Netcode issues aside, Battlefield 4's 64-player online battles demonstrates a radically improved gameplay experience a world apart from the last-gen equivalents. BF4 and Far Cry 4 also showcases how the extra GPU power on offer overcomes the frame-rate issues that plagued advanced engines on last-gen systems, improving not just the look, but the feel of key titles. Games like Shadow of Mordor - clearly designed with the new consoles in mind - fail badly downsized onto last-gen hardware. We've also seen a range of remasters, some of which are truly transformative experiences compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.
But take a few moments to revisit our deep dive on the visually stunning Killzone Shadow Fall and the amazing new technologies deployed in the game. It's a phenomenal achievement, yet we're struggling to think of any title that has seen gameplay enhancements that mirror the kind of time and effort put into the graphics, whether we're talking about PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. Smoother, shinier, and in some cases more immersive, enhanced visuals are obviously important - but so far both consoles have failed to deliver a defining next-gen moment, something like the original Assassin's Creed reveal way back in 2006.
There are technological arguments that may explain why gameplay hasn't evolved in step with graphics, but we can't avoid the compelling financial reasons either: games take at least two years to make, and when today's triple-A multi-platform hits began development, publishers had no idea how successful - or not - the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One would be. It's no mistake that virtually every major multi-platform title still has legacy last-gen support, and what surprised us based on our recent testing is that while graphics routinely fall way short of the new standard, in many cases, gameplay holds up better than expected. Strip back the visual enhancements and in some cases, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 still manage to keep pace.
Innovative, next-gen gameplay held back by the economic need to support older hardware is one potential explanation, but it doesn't quite explain what's going on with the platform exclusives on both of the new consoles - virtually all of which follow the same pattern of radically enhanced graphics coupled with familiar gameplay concepts and mechanics. Unfamiliarity with the hardware may explain this of course, but when you look at the degrees of technological accomplishment achieved in the visuals, even in the launch titles, lack of gameplay innovation is disappointing. Doubtless there's a combination of factors at work, but in terms of overall trends, virtually everything has played out almost exactly as one of the Secret Developers foretold last year.
His prognosis for what was then the next generation of console hardware? "[GPUs] have improved significantly in the last seven years, while the target HD resolution has shifted upwards from 720p and 1080p - a far smaller increase," he said, "but in this console generation it appears that the CPUs haven't kept pace. While they are faster than the previous generation, they are not an order of magnitude faster, which means that we might have to make compromises again in the game design to maintain frame-rate."
Looking at the nuts and bolts of the processors within Xbox One and PS4, initial assessments of the balance of power within their integrated silicon haven't really changed in the last year - both Sony and Microsoft chose to combine low-power mobile CPU technology with desktop-class graphics. It's a fundamental rebalancing of the power equation from last-gen, where the two key components were more equally matched (or in fact somewhat reversed if we're talking about PlayStation 3, where its ultra-powerful Cell was hardly matched by the mediocre RSX).
"Well, I think that the first round of games will likely be trying to be graphically impressive (it is "next-gen" after all) but in some cases, this might be at the expense of game complexity," the Secret Developer continued. "The initial difficulty is going to be using the CPU power effectively to prevent simulation frame drops and until studios actually work out how best to use these new machines, the games won't excel."
A different way to react to this scenario is to produce games where the CPU side of the equation isn't really being challenged, effectively leaving gameplay much as it was on Xbox 360 and PS3. Or else, simply to re-release existing last-gen games, tapping into that powerful GPU hardware - remasters can work beautifully on the current-gen consoles, as we've seen many times over this year.
But perhaps what is most concerning here is that the gameplay status quo has continued, even as we have segued into the arrival of the full-on 'next-gen' engines found in the key games of this holiday season. Call of Duty Advanced Warfare looks absolutely gorgeous on both PS4 and Xbox One (a world apart from the last-gen versions), but the fundamentals of the gameplay enhancements work almost as well on the older consoles. There's some phenomenal additional bling delivered from the new engine, but the old one delivers a game that plays in a very similar fashion on far less powerful hardware - especially in the all-important multiplayer component.
Meanwhile, the one new game that arguably pushes in-game world simulation to new heights also has some of the worst performance issues we've seen on either of the new consoles, bearing out the Secret Developer's assessment of the overall hardware balance found in the new hardware. Assassin's Creed Unity's gameplay may not feel like a mammoth progression in gameplay terms, but its rendering of revolutionary France is a significant leap beyond previous titles in the series - and it's clear that both consoles hit an insurmountable obstacle in the form of limited CPU power.
Insurmountable right now, perhaps, but things will change. Game developers have proven extremely adept in adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of new console hardware, but it does take time. The established paradigm of the CPU simulating the in-game world and sending out the data to the GPU to render will adjust - the balance of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hardware practically demands that the graphics hardware needs to take on tasks traditionally associated with the CPU. This will happen in very different ways: we're already seeing jobs offloaded via compute shaders, but there's also the concept of asynchronous compute. This is all about getting more from the GPU hardware without necessarily impacting graphics performance - certain GPU tasks utilise specific components of the processor, leaving ALU (actual compute resources) virtually untouched while those jobs are being processed. So if that component is lying dormant while rendering opaque shadowmaps for example, why not utilise it for something else?
It's early days there, with PS4 architect Mark Cerny (a strong advocate of GPU compute) admitting we're a couple of years out from this being an important component of games development - but realistically, it's the only way forward in creating richer, more complex gameplay. Based on the rough timetable Cerny describes, hopefully we should be seeing titles using more in the way of GPU compute by this time next year. And this is where the differences between the two consoles could have a direct impact on the games we play in terms of something other than rendering resolutions and effects work. Based on compute power alone, PS4 should have an advantage over Xbox One in this scenario, something borne out by this GPU compute presentation produced by the creators of - ironically - Assassin's Creed Unity, demonstrating the under-powered CPU problem in-depth, with a real world example of how the GPU provides the true next-gen leap we need for the enhanced simulation required for more complex game worlds.
We went into this piece looking to compare the fortunes of the consoles across the year, but after a particularly eventful series of cross-platform comparisons mostly focused in the launch and post-launch periods, the great next-gen console battle has turned out to be rather less interesting than the on-paper specs might suggest. The end result - for year one at least - reveals that PS4 and Xbox One's commonalities outweigh the differences. The raw statistics in terms of who 'won' Year One do look somewhat one-sided though - and this is all down to Sony's wise decision to make gaming the core consideration of its hardware design. We're still discussing this internally, but right now, out of the 40 game comparisons we've carried out since the consoles launched, our tally looks like this:
- 13 games where we have parity or very minor differences
- 6 titles where each has its advantages/disadvantages - no overall winner
- 6 titles where a 900p to 1080p (or equivalent) PS4 resolution boost is the only real differentiating factor
- 14 titles where the PS4 advantage is noticeable and isn't just limited to resolution (performance or visual effects enhancements too)
- 1 title with a clear Xbox One advantage
However, this doesn't really reflect the full story. Truly transformative differences brought about by the extra GPU power found on PS4 sees the tally drop to just three games in our opinion: PES 2015, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition and Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. The 720p/1080p resolution differential on the Konami Fox Engine titles is so vast that it simply can't be ignored (COD Ghosts' gulf in pixel-count gets a pass owing to the wonky performance on PS4 finding improvement on Xbox One) while the Lara Croft remaster sees a gameplay experience improved significantly by the charge for 60fps, lacking any of the embarrassing sub-30fps drops found on Xbox One when the engine is under stress.
But from an experience perspective - in terms of how well these games actually play - the results still feel skewed. Of the titles with a noticeable PS4 advantage, it's sometimes the case that the improvements are superficial. Take Shadow of Mordor, for example: improved shadow resolution and more foliage are welcome, but the chances are that you could switch between the PS4 and Xbox One and even with the resolution difference, you'd be just as happy playing either version. The 900p vs 1080p debate has fizzled out somewhat, and owing to new processing technologies, this will become even less of an issue across the console generation. There are scenarios where performance and stability can trump the 900p/1080p divide too. As things stand, Dragon Age: Inquisition may look a little crisper on PS4, but there's an argument that Xbox One's frame-rate advantages during the important battle sequences make for an improved gameplay experience (for the record, right now this title sits in our 'No Mans Land' category - where neither version has an outright advantage over the other).
We'll publish the full list shortly and continue to update it as a reference point, but the main takeaway is that despite the PS4's prodigious increase in GPU power over Xbox One, the trends in overall gaming development apply equally to both systems. Even factoring in first-party platform exclusives - where last-gen support is by and large irrelevant - what's clear is that the next-gen leap has mostly been visual in nature.
The presence of the substantial boost in GPU power found on PS4 is definitely felt, but these are two machines with far more in the way of similarities than differences - a state of affairs borne out by the catalogue of software available. All of which brings us back to a John Carmack comment about the new wave of consoles that attracted heated debate last year - "It's almost amazing how close they are in capabilities, how common they are... And that the capabilities that they give are essentially the same."
Controversial at the time, Carmack's comment has of course turned out to be entirely true, based on the overall experiences delivered from both systems. Think of two very similar PCs possessing different graphics cards and the statement doesn't seem that outlandish at all - and while that is a little simplistic, that's essentially what we have with PS4 and Xbox One. Of course, the fact is that consoles are closed boxes and developers can tweak to lessen the impact of the GPU differential - something they can't really do on PC. Microsoft's freeing up of the GPU resources dedicated to Kinect has had an impact too, the extent of which will vary between titles. The bottom line is that we've seen more major titles get closer to parity this holiday season than we did in the launch and post-launch periods. Moving into Year Two, the big question is to what extent the GPU starts to be utilised for non-visual tasks, and whether Xbox One can remain competitive. From our perspective, looking at the long-term view, the extent to which PlayStation 4's larger GPU makes it more 'future-proof' is more of a concern than the often minimal differences seen between titles rendering at 900p and 1080p.
At this point it's safe to say that PS4's on-paper technical advantage has been proven beyond doubt by the lion's share of a year's worth of releases - but right now that's only in terms of technical metrics, where the relevance to the core experience shifts from one title to the next and often makes little difference to how enjoyable a game actually is to play. As things stand, both machines have proved the point that they are capable of producing beautiful visuals - now the challenge is to push on with new, innovative games. It'll take time but we've confident that we'll get there: with developers adjusting to the strengths of the new hardware, and last-gen support far less of a concern, hopefully we can see the gameplay revolution to match the impressive visuals the new consoles will continue to deliver.