Face-Off: Darksiders 2: Deathinitive Edition

The new PS4 and Xbox One remaster compared to the original release.

While a third Darksiders instalment has yet to be confirmed, the franchise's new custodian - Nordic Games - appears to be testing the waters for a sequel with a remastered Darksiders 2 on PS4 and Xbox One, 'hilariously' dubbed the Deathinitive Edition. The conversion is in good hands too, with developers Gunfire Games consisting of many ex-Vigil Games staff, who previously worked on the two existing Darksiders releases. And there is the sense that this remaster is perhaps laying the groundwork for some kind of new sequel: rather than just convert the existing title, the team delivers a substantially improved lighting model fit for the current-gen platforms, along with higher resolution textures and remodelled geometry.

The Deathinitive Edition has clearly had a good deal for work put into it, but the enhancements come at a price - specifically a capped 30fps in line with the original console releases. In comparison, the original PC release easily runs at 1080p60 with max settings enabled on relatively meagre graphics hardware. So with that in mind how much of an actual upgrade are we looking at? And is the leap in graphical quality in the Deathinitive Edition enough to deliver a better experience than the existing PC release, despite the lower frame-rate?

Image quality is certainly improved on the PS4 and Xbox. Both consoles render natively in 1080p, while the developer's previous use of an edge-detect and blur solution to tackle aliasing is replaced with a more refined post-process anti-aliasing technique. Jaggies were never a major issue in the original PC game, and Gunfire Games' new implementation works well in providing a clean image with few artefacts, though we do see some mild texture blurring in play.

A video comparison of the Deathinitive Edition's enhancements over the original version, plus a quick look at the differences between PS4 and Xbox One.

The jump to 1080p naturally results in a much sharper and polished image over the last-gen console versions of Darksiders 2, but the biggest improvement comes with the extensive remastering of core assets, which brings out more detail in the expansive world on offer. The use of higher resolution textures allows for fine details to fully resolve at full HD, whereas the original artwork begins to pixelate and blur at resolutions above 720p on the existing PC version.

In terms of the remastering effort, environment details are further fleshed out. For example, rock faces feature increased geometric complexity, while additional trees and foliage are spread across the landscape. While many areas of the game feel a little barren - such as plains of Charred Pass - these changes help to better fill out the sparser locations throughout the game. Draw distances are also improved over the original PC version of Darksiders 2, with shadows and LOD transitions occurring less aggressively than before. That said, pop-in is still an issue at times when the engine is streaming in data as the player rides through different locations, with shadows and grass the most noticeable culprits.

The other major change to the familiar world in the Deathinitive Edition is a complete reworking of the lighting model. Light sources are repositioned across many scenes and extra lights are added, casting additional shadows across the environment and characters. Ambient lighting is also more prominent, adding to the level of depth in dimly-lit areas. The use of physically-based rendering also enhances the level of three-dimensionality in the presentation, while materials such as stone, leather, cloth and metal look more realistic, without compromising the stylised look of the core artwork too much.

PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Native 1080p framebuffers are present on both PS4 and Xbox One. The use of post process anti-aliasing in the Deathinitive Edition is a step beyond the edge detect and blur method used on the PC, resulting in a cleaner image.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
The use of higher resolution textures in the Deathinitive Edition ensures that the artwork remains crisp and clear when displayed in 1080p and above. Here the cracks and lines on Death's mask look pixelated on the original PC game.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Environments are more densely detailed in the Deathinitive Edition. Here we see how extra trees and foliage are used to naturally fill out various locations.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Here's another example of how Gunfire Games' remaster builds upon the core look of the original Darksiders 2. Reworked geometry adds more detail to rock formations in the Charred Pass. In this shot we see how the rocks on the ground to the right are now a closer match to the cliff-side on the left.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
The change to a physically based rendering set-up in the Deathinitive Edition allows for surfaces to realistically react to various light sources. Here we see how the rocks feature a smooth diffused appearance with light scattering across the surface. Meanwhile metals feature more specular sheen and reflective properties.

These upgrades bring the core visual standard more into line with current generation titles and add a layer of realism to the stylised artwork not seen in the standard Darksiders 2 release. However, the overall look of the game isn't a complete match on PS4 and Xbox One, with some substantial differences.

Take the lighting model for example. While both versions feature similarly placed light sources and use of physically-based rendering, lighting is much brighter on Xbox One and frequently too dark on PS4, despite gamma settings matching up nicely between the two versions. Right now it's not immediately clear which version features the 'correct' lighting set-up intended by Gunfire Games, but PS4 seems to feature a closer tonal match to the original game.

Elsewhere, we also see the occasional missing shadow on the PS4 game, along with a reduced level of snow in the opening stage of the game, both of which are likely oversights as opposed to actual downgrades, though the situation is a little odd. That said, both consoles are a match in many areas with texture resolution, filtering and the use of alpha effects appearing identical. The PS4 also gains an advantage through the use of higher resolution shadows, with these elements appearing visibly rougher on Xbox One.

PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Both PS4 and Xbox One benefit from using a reworked lighting model. However, the intensity of the lighting is visibly lower on the PS4, leading to the game featuring a darker and less striking appearance. Also notice the shadows on Xbox One, which render at a lower resolution compared to PS4.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Here we see the same number of lights cast across both consoles, yet the PS4 is clearly missing the extra shadows present on the Xbox One game in this scene. Other areas appear mostly unaffected, so this seems to be a bug or oversight.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Alpha-based effects appear identical across both PS4 and Xbox One. However, some of these elements lack the additional bloom/glow map effects present on the PC version. In this case the splashes of molten metal inside the cauldron.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Another possible oversight on the PS4 game. Here we see how the snow texture layer is reduced on the PS4 in the opening area of the game - visible on the mountains in this shot.
PlayStation 4Xbox OnePC (Original Edition)
Ground textures tend to blur at oblique angles in all versions of Darksiders 2. However, the inclusion of something along the lines of 2x anisotropic filtering in the Deathinitive Edition allows for more clarity and resolved detail across distant textures compared with the original PC game, which uses trilinear filtering.

Performance is clearly more stable than the last-gen consoles versions of Darksiders 2, mostly providing a more consistent gameplay experience with fewer interruptions in the way of judder or screen-tear. However, the fact that we are still seeing some frame-rate drops and torn frames at all is disappointing, especially considering the 30fps cap. Perhaps the reworked lighting model, and the switch to a physically-based rendering set-up is simply too demanding to allow for a consistent 60fps update within the confines of the existing - albeit significantly enhanced - engine.

However, what's clear is that while the Xbox One version of the Deathinitive Edition seems to possess fewer visual anomalies than its PS4 counterpart, it's the Sony console that takes point on delivering on its 30fps target. Frame drops are more commonplace on Xbox One in busier areas, and in this sense, its overall performance profile is more in line with the original Xbox 360 game - albeit with substantially reduced levels of screen-tear.

By comparison, the original PC game is easy to run at 60fps on low-end hardware, and even old cards such as the GTX 460 net you 1080p gameplay between 80-90fps when v-sync is disabled. With v-sync on, a mostly solid 60fps is possible and the results transform the look and feel of the game: motion appears much smoother, while the controls feel more responsive. Judder is an occasional issue, particularly during moments when the engine is streaming in data, but even here performance is considerably better than both last and current-gen consoles. Assuming a PC version of the Deathinitive Edition is on the cards, it'll be interesting to see just how much of an additional burden the game's enhancements incur.

Xbox One and PS4 performance compared - with the original Xbox 360 version added in for good measure.

Darksiders 2: Deathinitive Edition - the Digital Foundry verdict.

The Deathinitive Edition of Darksiders 2 is certainly an interesting release. The decision to extensively rework core graphical features completely transforms the look of the game, with the use of physically-based rendering and upgraded assets and lighting creating a more striking title that stays faithful to the stylised art design of the original. The end result is a game that is better suited to full HD resolution, with extra depth and detail fleshed out with the jump in pixel precision. Of course these enhancements do come with a substantial compromise in the form of a 30fps cap. Performance is certainly much improved over the last-gen versions of the game, and the mostly solid frame-rate during combat makes intense boss encounters and busy action sequences more enjoyable to play. Stuttering due to the engine streaming data when exploring the world on horseback is distracting though, while the appearance of any tearing at all is disappointing bearing in mind the frame-rate limitation.

Out of the two consoles, the PS4 offers up a more stable experience under load, though tearing is more prominent in general traversal. Higher resolution shadows are also welcome here, though the lighting model appears unusually dark compared to the Xbox release. Meanwhile, anomalies such as missing shadows and pared back snow lead to a more inconsistent presentation overall. Right now the PS4 game is a better choice overall due to the more stable frame-rate and better shadow quality, although the Xbox One game offers up a more striking presentation due to much brighter lighting set-up and fewer graphical bugs. It'll be interesting to see if the PS4 version changes or improves with subsequent updates.

However, from a gameplay perspective, the original PC version still provides the best gameplay experience due to its ability to run the game at 60fps with almost contemptuous ease. The higher frame-rate delivers a more fluid presentation, along with lower latency controls. There's also a charm in the way the artwork is presented using the old shading model, although the lower resolution textures show their limitations when displayed at 1080p - and generally there's less depth to the image overall. In that respect, we are presented with two choices here - enhanced visuals via the console Deathinitive Edition, or much improved frame-rate on PC. Or at least that's the case for now - this Steam page suggests that the Deathinitive Edition is also headed to the PC at a later date, so the possibly to experience Gunfire Games' remastered take on Darksiders 2 at 60fps could be an option further on down the line.

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David Bierton

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