Performance Analysis: Hawken

A last-gen game arrives on modern console hardware, with variable results.

It's been a long time coming. First released in 2012 after extended alpha and beta testing, Hawken's mech-fuelled combat action attracted plenty of attention owing to some highly attractive Unreal Engine 3-powered visuals. However, after two years of support, publisher Meteor Entertainment shut down, leading the game in limbo. Bought up by Reloaded Games, Hawken is now available on PS4 and Xbox One. And the question now is this - just how good is the port, bearing in mind how badly the publisher's work on APB Reloaded turned out?

Well, the good news is that the overall quality of the game is a significant cut above APB's current shocking state. Visually, Hawken still looks rather attractive - testament to the quality of the art direction from the original development team. And in terms of image quality, there's very little to separate the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the title: both render at a native 1080p with identical core assets, the same anti-aliasing solution and mirrored effects work. The only dividing line concerns ambient occlusion - PlayStation 4 receives a more refined solution, whereas the Microsoft platform sees some rather heavy black halo effects in certain areas.

The platform parity also extends to some decidedly last-gen looking artefacts. Texture resolution looks relatively low judged by today's triple-A standards, and UE3's streaming difficulties - seen at their worst on Xbox One's APB Reloaded - also manifest here, with higher resolution artwork sometimes failing to resolve. On top of that is a curious blurriness to the aesthetic: Hawken often looks as though it's running at a sub-native resolution in motion, despite all pixel counts on both systems returning full HD results. All of these issues in general detract a little from the sheen.

However, the bad news is that while the game's visuals are mostly OK, there are some fundamental issues with stability, resulting in very shaky performance on both systems. The end result is that the quality of the gameplay experience can be heavily compromised. The bottom line is this: Hawken can exhibit some severe stuttering issues, where gameplay is broken up by split-second second pauses. At its very worst, this can see latency spikes of up to 150ms. In effect, it feels like the streaming issues that impacted Unreal Engine 3 throughout its lifetime have ported across to PS4 and Xbox One, amplified somewhat by the inclusion of an unlocked frame-rate.

Performance testing for Hawken on PlayStation 4, along with a look at visual differences - such as they are - between Sony and Microsoft platforms.

We're looking at very different implementations of that unlocked performance on the two consoles. Generally speaking, frame-rates in the game vary from 30-50fps. PlayStation 4 offers a slightly higher overall throughput, and it seems that this has emboldened the developer to opt for a completely v-synced presentation here. Meanwhile, Xbox One runs a touch slower, but runs with an adaptive v-sync solution - and as Hawken rarely troubles 60fps, the end result is an off-putting tearing effect.

And yet, despite the lower overall frame-rate, Xbox One offers the better overall experience, despite the often hideous tearing. And it's all about consistency in the controls. When you watch the PlayStation 4 performance video, keep an eye on the frame-time meter. This measures the persistence of each frame on-screen, and it throws up some remarkable results - frames arriving at 16, 33, 50 and 66ms intervals within the same split-second of gameplay. It seems that introducing v-sync here has only accentuated the impact of the stutter. Outside of these areas, in more smoother play, there's a less jarring 16/33ms differential as the game renders out in the 40-60fps area.

Compare and contrast with Xbox One. With v-sync effectively disabled for the majority of the duration, frames are punted out to the display as soon as rendering completes, mid refresh. On the one hand, this is responsible for the often ugly tearing effects, but on the other, it means a more consistent feel to the controls - something that's rather crucial to the success of a first-person shooter. That said, it still doesn't excuse some of the larger, more intrusive stutters - not even turning v-sync off can disguise jarring 150ms spikes in latency. But overall, the solution employed on Xbox One offers up an experience that feels akin to Titanfall, and for exactly the same reasons - a sense of familiarity heightened by a similar aesthetic too.

A more in-depth look at the Xbox One version of the game. We had to expand the frame-time grid to encompass the severe stutter.

Hawken's big saving grace is that the title is free to play, meaning that you can download it now from the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live and check out the experience for yourself without having to outlay any money at all. However, there are micro-transactions, of course - specifically paying for boosts to avoid grinding along with exclusive cosmetic customisations. But this won't get in the way of you sampling the experience before deciding if you want to sink more time into it.

Overall, at its best, Hawken still offers a playable experience but it's clear that there are some fundamental issues with the quality of the port that detract significantly from the level of overall polish. And we can't help but wonder whether the lion's share of the stuttering issues that impact both versions couldn't be tidied up immensely by the inclusion of a 30fps cap. It's an interesting option, but it would have its own effects on controller latency - there's no doubt that Xbox One Hawken just feels more responsive at 40fps vs a standard 30fps game (25ms vs 33ms - and you can feel the difference).

And of course, it's worth remembering that Hawken was originally a PC game, and that version is still alive and kicking after the Reloaded buy-out. Unreal Engine 3 is a mature technology there, and the game's 2012 vintage means that a locked 1080p60 shouldn't be a problem for today's mainstream gaming PC.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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