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Face-Off: Battlefield Hardline

Any cop?

Visceral Games' cops-and-robbers shooter may bear many similarities to its predecessor in its core tech, but Battlefield Hardline's single-player shows a key change to how PS4 and Xbox One performance stacks up. While our multiplayer analysis suggested only conservative tweaks to DICE's engine, the solo play brings out some different results in frame-rate metrics - for better and worse. Testing both console editions in identical scenes, the clear advantage once held by Sony's platform with Frostbite 3 is no longer a resolute one, though its raw pixel-count remains an advantage.

The first thing to note is Hardline's single-player follows a different, more plot-driven formula than previous games in the series. Mimicking the format of a modern crime drama, its characters are put centre-stage with a heavy push for motion-captured cut-scenes, backed by a film grain post-process effect. A great many of these sequences are rendered in-engine, and at least on a technical level, the game strikes a surprisingly high standard of facial animation this side of LA Noire's MotionScan tech.

Alas, a good chunk of these scenes are simply pre-encoded video files. Each format uses the exact same quality of compression here, and as a result all boast a sizeable total download size of between 36GB to 44GB, with consoles veering towards the upper end. To a point, the use of pre-rendered cut-scenes minimises the impact of the lower native resolutions on console - the video sequences are locked to 1080p and 30fps. However, as with the multiplayer side, we can confirm the PS4's solo gameplay still runs at a 1600x900 native resolution, while Xbox One sits at 1280x720.

Battlefield Hardline's image quality is disappointing on both counts. Yet again the quality of the upscale, plus the cheap post-process anti-aliasing on console, produces some glaringly poor results. For example, sharp pixel-crawl artefacts flare up across large multiplayer stages, particularly on Xbox One in maps like Derailed, where the structure of power lines is broken from afar by its low pixel count. As for single-player, the issue is often muted; much of the game is spent trawling through linear corridors at night, and the radius of view often keeps this issue in check.

Battlefield Hardline compared on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Be sure to select the 1080p option below for the best viewing experience.

Alternative comparisons:

However, there are major exceptions. Fence-work in the opening Prologue mission suffers enormously on both PS4 and Xbox One, and the more open-ended Gator Bait stage (one of few levels to give players freedom to roam) also looks a mess - a swampy setting with swathes of trees and grass that flicker wildly at each turn. Just like Battlefield 4, it drives home the series' dire need for a better-rounded AA method that can also tackle temporal aliasing. The approach here, though passable in spots, is simply too distracting when working with the upscaled console framebuffers.

But what's the story for the actual settings on each version? Pitting both console editions against PC at its ultra graphics preset (rendering at 1920x1080 to easily match shots), it's surprising to find how little there is to distinguish each. The PS4 and Xbox One are entirely identical, right down to the form of ambient occlusion and their texture filtering. There's only a slight quirk on PS4, where texture positions are offset, marks any contrast in our shots. The rest boils down to the resolution divide, with textures and high-contrast meshes affected at range on Xbox One, and less so on PS4.

The PC advantage is easy to summarise too: reflection and shadows quality is one setting higher than console, texture filtering is cleaner at range, and effects like bokeh depth of field are also unique to this version. We see a boost to object LODs too, meaning pop-in occurs at a farther point in the distance than on console. It's a superior release on balance, but with textures, lighting and so much else a match for PS4 and Xbox One, it does take side-by-side screenshot comparisons to catch many of these points.

On to performance, and this is curiously where the PS4 starts to slip. Unlike Battlefield 4's preference for Sony's hardware in the frame-rate stakes, Hardline clearly favours Xbox One across the spectrum of our tests. Both target 60fps with v-sync permanently engaged, but it's only Xbox One that manages to hold this number in areas, particularly with alpha effects involved.

PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
Battlefield Hardline's visual setup on console is broadly close to PC at its high settings. However, the upscale from 900p on PS4 and 720p on Xbox One causes fine details such as fences (see back right) to appear rough and cluttered. We also see shadow quality on console is a step lower than PC's Ultra settings.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
Hardline's high point is its facial animation system. Skin is gorgeously lit in darkened environments such as this, and in our experience, lip-sync is convincing enough to make words interpretable even on mute. It's a very respectable effort.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
PS4 and Xbox One lose out on the PC's top reflection quality - as you can see in the puddles below.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
Texture-work is broadly identical to PC on its maximum settings. One quirk of the PS4 version is an offset in the shader position running over the top of textures - something we spotted in Battlefield 4 as well.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
Lighting effects such as anamorphic lens flare are also in. It's dialled down greatly from Battlefield 3's excesses with laser pointers and flashlights, and is instead put to better use in its cinematics.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
The resolution disparity between PC, PS4 and Xbox One causes a trail-off in texture detail in the distance. The furthest point on this plank is blurrier as a result on Xbox One, while PS4 serves a as mid-point between that and PC.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC
The PC receives better texture filtering than console, and also a bokeh depth of field effect, affecting the lit particles in the air.

A GPU-side bottleneck is the likely culprit on PS4, though it is unusual to see the stronger console buckle, even with its higher resolution. In one example, a warehouse filled with transparency effects prompts the PS4 to waver between 50-60fps, while Xbox One clears it without an issue. Only one hotel shoot-out prompts any major drops on Microsoft's hardware, while PS4 draws closer to the 50fps line in almost every case. It is worth emphasising that these are the worst-case scenarios though, and the rest of play unfolds at 60fps for each console.

It's a conclusive Xbox One lead in performance, but there is a new issue to Hardline that affects all platforms, including PC. Unlike Battlefield 4, some in-engine cut-scenes run at just 30fps, as shown by the dramatic car crash at the end of the prologue mission. The catch here is that there's no camera cut in-between 60fps gameplay and these 30fps cinematics - meaning this transition happens right before your eyes to jarring effect.

The perceived effect is that all versions drop frames heavily. However, on close inspection it turns out this 30fps lock only affects Frostbite 3's animation engine, with characters and cars updating at a half-refresh, while effects and lighting carry on at the regular 60fps. In motion with high-speed chases, the results are incredibly jarring, and it's a shame to see a PC perfectly capable of a locked 60fps also throttled down to this level.

The PC version has its own issues on top of this. Our a Core i7 3770K test rig, coupled with16GB of RAM and a GTX 780 Ti graphics card, handles the game at 1080p with all settings maxed at 60fps - as you'd expect. However, it becomes obvious within moments that something is amiss. In play, the game is prone to a judder effect during camera pans, despite a clear 60fps read-out from the machine. It's an issue we witnessed during Hardline's PC beta too on a separate PC, where the pacing of any motion is disrupted when near another character, or even walls. For the record, this isn't an issue with the PS4 and Xbox One releases.

The Xbox One has a conclusive lead in performance in Battlefield Hardline. The PS4 often falls near the 50fps line during stress-tests, while Microsoft's platform holds at mostly 60fps with a few exceptions.

In trying other more budget-focused cards such as the GTX 750 Ti and the Radeon R7 260X, we see no relief from this bug, and changing the game's graphics options doesn't help either. In terms of performance, we see a profile very similar to Battlefield 4 - you can achieve console-equivalent 60fps performance by locking resolution to 1600x900 and dropping the quality settings to high, effectively matching PlayStation 4. However, despite the decent on-paper performance, the stutter issue persists here too, suggesting that Visceral really needs to take a look at PC performance to bring it more into line with the console editions. Certainly, user-side fixes like MSI Afterburner's frame-rate limiter, or Nvidia's hardware v-sync modes don't help.

Battlefield Hardline - the Digital Foundry verdict

All in all, Battlefield Hardline has issues on every platform, but it's fair to say PC brings the most divisive plus and minus points. On the one hand it aces both PS4 and Xbox One with better settings - essentially by the same margin as Battlefield 4 - with scalable resolution and frame-rate options in tow. At 1080p60 and beyond the PC is still the pack leader, but given Hardline's motion judder issues on that format, it's not the premium release we had hoped for - and we hope that Visceral take a good look at the issue and fix it.

On the console front, the equation is far simpler: Xbox One excels in frame-rate metrics this time, and has a much better grip on 60fps compared to PS4. It's the most improved version of the three in its handling of the Frostbite 3 engine, and often runs above the PS4's update during stress tests. That said the 720p/900p resolution divide, where image quality favours Sony's platform, makes it an apples and pears scenario when choosing between the two.

As it stands, Visceral Games' first Battlefield title shows a firm grasp on the template cut by DICE 18 months ago, but does little to elaborate on it. The single-player mode is a mixed bag in matching Battlefield 4's brilliant set-pieces and open-ended dust-bowl segments - a game that remains a staple for our PC GPU tests. Hardline's multiplayer delivers a solid experience, but there's no escaping the verdict that its solo adventure fails to impress on any platform, an area we hope improves for the next release.

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About the author

Thomas Morgan

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry  |  cataferal

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.


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