Assassin's Creed Origins arrives on Xbox One X, giving us a fascinating insight into how a key developer aims to scale their multi-platform projects most effectively across the current generation of consoles - both base models and 4K mid-gen refreshes. On the face of it, there are few surprises here: the more teraflops your console has, the better the resolution, automatically meaning that, yes, the game looks best on Xbox One X. But the techniques Ubisoft has deployed to scale its game across consoles produces some interesting results: Microsoft's new console hands in by far the best raw metrics in terms of pixel counts, but PS4 Pro still holds up rather well.
It's all about temporal anti-aliasing, the process of refining quality in the frame currently rendering by drawing upon information from previously generated images. The truth is that there's a huge amount of common information from one frame to the next, so why not draw upon that existing data and allow the game to look even better? TAA has produced excellent results in existing games, with titles like Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, Uncharted 4, Doom and Wolfenstein 2 all but banishing the dreaded 'jaggies' - harsh, ugly geometric edges. It's typically this artefact that is the most obviously noticeable difference between the same game running at varying resolutions
Assassin's Creed Origins follows suit with its own TAA solution, providing a huge upgrade over the basic post-process solutions found in Unity and Syndicate. It's also a good fit for the new game as Ubisoft has jettisoned its previous approach to the fundamentals of image quality: the fixed 900p framebuffer on both PS4 and Xbox One is gone, replaced with a dynamic scaling technology that aims for optimal GPU utilisation at all times, increasing resolution in simpler scenes and lowering it on more complex scenes while maintaining a relatively consistent frame-rate. It's not a new technique, but the use of temporal AA helps to mitigate the visual side-effects as resolution decreases - you're losing the raw pixel count, but you're still super-sampling in more data from prior frames, so despite some big variations in pixel counts between platforms, it helps to bring PS4 Pro, Xbox One X and PC versions closer together from a visual standpoint
The end result is that while we're still looking at a beautiful game, Assassin's Creed Origins isn't designed to extract more impressive visual results from Xbox One X's hardware specification - and the visual make-up of the game suggests that this was never really Ubisoft's intent. To the untrained eye, the game's going to look much the same between PS4 Pro, X and even PC running maxed at full-fat 2160p. There are undoubted improvements the more power you throw at the game, but those expecting a Shadow of War-style night and day improvement from Pro to X may be disappointed.
Regardless, even though the visual payback isn't as dramatic as you may expect on the new Xbox, the pixel count does indeed ramp up dramatically in the leap from Pro to X. In general gameplay, we didn't get to see the Microsoft console deliver full-fat 2160p, but we did measure 3584x2016 at the upper bounds - a 62 per cent increase in maximum resolution up against the highest pixel count we saw on Pro: 2816x1584. In terms of the minimums, it's X at 1656p vs Pro vs 1350p. Completing the gamut of tests we ran, the most common measurements saw Pro spend much of its time at 1440p, with Xbox One X between 1700p and 1800p in the same areas. Both versions look good on a 4K screen, and the difference in the presentation generally comes down to a little less blur and more clarity the higher up the resolution chain you go.
By and large, Xbox One X seems capable of pushing its dynamic scaler across a wider range of pixel counts, but effectively, a 55 to 60 per cent increase in resolution compared to PS4 Pro's efforts seems to be the result across the run of play in like-for-like scenarios. It takes the Microsoft platform closer to delivering the full-fat experience for 4K display owners, but for the absolute purist, PC is the only place to be in attaining complete consistency at the 2160p standard. However, in the case of this title, we'd favour using the flexibility of PC hardware to push for 60fps gameplay instead - as the head-to-head shots on this page demonstrate, you pay a big price in terms of processing resources for what amounts to an incremental increase in image quality over the consoles.
Beyond scalability in pixel counts, Xbox One X does throw up one or two enhancements. While draw distance and LODs seem to be the same as PlayStation 4 Pro, the extra pixel count has a benefit on texture filtering, which adds extra detail to artwork and brings the Microsoft hardware more into line with PC. Running the game on high-end PC hardware opens up maximum shadow resolution and pushes out the cascade further into the distance. For its part, Xbox One X sits at a kind of midway point between PC's best and the standard set by PS4 Pro. One curious anomaly concerns ambient occlusion - by and large it looks the same across all three systems, but there are select scenarios that see heavier halo artefacts on Xbox One X.
Performance-wise, there's a clear divide between base console hardware and the 4K mid-generation refreshes. Frame-rates that regularly dip under 30fps on the older kit resolve much closer to the target performance level on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Here, reduced frame-rates amount to little more than a barely noticeable stutter - this isn't much of a problem on the Sony hardware and it's further cleaned up on its Microsoft rival. Unfortunately, not even a six teraflop GPU can resolve the choppiness of cutscene playback, though in a reverse to the base console situation, this time it's the Xbox console inching ahead of its Sony equivalent by a consistent bump in the 2-3fps area - sometimes higher.
All of which leads us back to the game's original presentation at Microsoft's E3 media briefing this year, said to be running on Xbox One X hardware. We were lucky enough to grab a pristine 4K feed of the presentation, and what surprised us was the locked 2160p pixel-count from start to finish despite Ubisoft talking about dynamic resolution scaling. On top of that, both E3 and Gamescom demos running on Xbox One X dev kits looked nowhere near as good as the game's initial showing, and they don't hold a candle to the polish of the final presentation. In retrospect, we wouldn't be surprised if the E3 trailer demo was running on the PC game set to Xbox One X spec, but without dynamic resolution engaged. The final game changes time of day settings, so locked like-for-like comparisons are not possible, but the X experience is close enough to what Ubisoft promised so many months ago and aspects such as visible LOD popping are much improved.
In the final analysis, Origins is a big success for Ubisoft, and a beautifully scalable game that works well on both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, intelligently using GPU resources to improve both image quality and frame-rate significantly over base hardware, producing a smoother, more enjoyable experience. The standard PS4 can feel over-taxed at times - a situation that is amplified on base Xbox One, where performance drops even harder and image quality is significantly blurrier. The mid-gen refresh machines from Sony and Microsoft sort out most of the in-game frame-rate dips, and both improve visuals - and in terms of the various console versions available, Xbox One X is the best of the bunch.