There are two sides to the Xbox One X showing at Gamescom 2017. Initially, Microsoft's colossal acreage only seems to play host to a small range of familiar-looking wares. Forza Motorsport 7, Assassin's Creed Origins and Super Lucky's Tale - games we saw at E3 - are joined by an impressive native 4K version of Shadow of War. Aside from the Warner Bros title, there's very little new here to report on. Forza Motorsport 7 still looks beautiful (as does its companion PC build, also present at the booth) while the other titles look very similar to the builds we've already seen.
However, at the back of the stand, tucked away behind a black curtain lies an Aladdin's Cave of new Xbox One X software from both first and third parties, featuring titles that deserve to take pride of place on the main booth. These additional games add much more to our understanding of how powerful the new hardware is and crucially, they help to answer a key question left unanswered in the wake of E3: just how much of an upgrade does the new hardware represent over the standard model?
The roll call of new games is impressive: Gears of War 4, Halo Wars 2, Titanfall 2, Quantum Break, Killer Instinct, Path of Exile, World of Tanks and F1 2017 are joined by Rise of the Tomb Raider - the same demo we played behind the scenes at Square-Enix earlier, looking even more impressive as it was running on a much higher quality display. We can also confirm that all software was indeed running on Xbox One X hardware - production units were on display, fully wired up with hot air pumping out of the rear vents, in contrast to the cold, empty shells seen at E3 on many titles, with demos hosted on PC hardware instead. Put simply, Gamescom 2017 is the real deal, our first chance to get a look at how the new console performs across a relatively wide cross-section of in-development titles.
As expected, the Coalition's Gears of War 4 conversion looks exceptionally impressive. The lack of capture opportunities means that a full breakdown of the enhancements isn't possible with this title, but even to the untrained eye, the upgrade is substantial. At the most basic level, you're getting a native 4K version of one of Xbox One's most technically accomplished, visually arresting titles, backed up the high-end texture assets previously exclusive to the PC version of the game. Texture filtering gets a big upgrade over the standard console too, with none of the improvements having any kind of noticeable hit to performance. Gears of War 4's campaign did a great job of sticking doggedly to its 30fps target on base hardware - in addition to the big visual boost, Xbox One X hands in the same performance level point-for-point, based on the three campaign levels available to play through.
Remedy's Quantum Break - announced on Sunday's livestream but not actually shown running - also hands in an impressive showing. We wrongly assumed that the no-show during the stream was down to the lack of presentable code, but what we saw looked just as solid and as polished as the existing Xbox One release, again running at a very stable 30 frames per second. It was one of the few titles not shown running at native 4K, instead using the same upscaling technique as the base model, based on the accumulated data from four prior frames. Certain scenarios can break the illusion, giving us a look at how the technology works - and right now, we'd hazard a guess that the base resolution is probably closer to 1080p before the smart upscaling kicks in. Regardless, the increase in clarity over the Xbox One title again represents a night and day difference - and further on down the road, it'll be interesting to see what level of PC hardware is required to get the same presentation from the Windows version.
We knew that a 4K upgrade for Killer Instinct was on the cards, but again, it was a pleasure to see very final-looking code up and running and fully playable. It's an interesting evolution for the title - let's remember that it launched alongside Xbox One itself, rendering at a native 720p. A subsequent title update pushed it to 900p, but Xbox One X delivers a crystal-clear native 4K presentation with no performance drops we could spot. The only blemish to the look of the title comes from its video assets, which appear unchanged from the original and look decidedly low res compared to the pristine 3D rendered output. Joining Killer Instinct in offering a clean 4K, 60Hz output is Path of Exile - flawless in motion, and clearly delivering a full frame-rate, ultra-HD experience, as you would expect from a title of this scope.
The surprise package comes in the form of Codemasters' F1 2017. Similar to Rise of the Tomb Raider, this game is operating at a native 4K on Xbox One X, while its PS4 Pro counterpart hits the same 2160p output via checkerboarding. Image quality on this one is off the charts - if it's not a match for the top-end PC experience, it's very close. However, while the title targets 60fps, its current performance level often falls somewhat short, with dropped frames and noticeable screen-tear. We've not had the chance to check this one out on the existing consoles yet, so we'll be curious to see the extent to which the base versions at 1080p resolution compare in performance terms - and to see whether frame-rates on PS4 Pro via checkerboarding are on par or better than what we saw here on Xbox One X. [UPDATE 28/8/17 11:35am: It looks like Codemasters will be shifting to checkerboard rendering for Xbox One X too, based on this comment - if this was the technique in place on the Gamescom code, consider us impressed.]
Regardless, the fact is that both Rise of the Tomb Raider and F1 2017 are adopting native 4K rendering in situations where PS4 Pro is checkerboarding instead, and that's a comparison point we really didn't expect to see. After all, this represents is a 2x increase in the native rendering resolution between Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, from hardware with a 43 per cent increase in compute power and a 50 per cent uplift in memory bandwidth. However, checkerboarding can and does really work well in delivering a great image for 4K screens. It'll be an interesting exercise to see how well image quality on these existing Pro titles holds up side-by-side with the native output from the Microsoft hardware.
A clear uplift in visual fidelity is also evident in Titanfall 2, which presents very much as a mid-way point between the PlayStation 4 Pro version and the top-end PC experience. You get what looks like the Sony console's visual set, paired with the extra clarity found running the PC version at a higher resolution. In effect, all that's missing from the top-tier Titanfall 2 presentation is ambient occlusion and some shadow effects. The series' signature 60fps gameplay remains fully intact, with Respawn's demo level even stress-testing the engine with a huge arena of battling Titans. It's another palpable hit and the boost from base Xbox One in particular here represents another night and day improvement.
We'll be looking at Shadow of War, Assassin's Creed Origins and Halo Wars 2 in more depth in standalone features, as we do have access to direct feed assets, but there are some initial observations we can share. First of all, it seems that there are actually two AC Origins builds at Gamescom.
The Microsoft booth seems to be running an older version of the code that has trouble resolving high resolution textures in the middle and far distance, resulting in some obvious muddy textures and low-resolution art - artefacts unseen on the beautiful E3 gameplay trailer. Thankfully, the Ubisoft booth we visited to capture is looking a lot more solid - LODs still aren't at the same level as the E3 trailer, but it's significantly closer. Developers on-site told us that they're aiming for resolution first and aim to bring up LODs to the required spec closer to release.
Talking with Monolith, we can also confirm that Shadow of War was indeed represented by a top-spec PC for its reveal at the Microsoft E3 media briefing. However, the Xbox One X version offers up a very similar native 4K experience, with performance ticking over nicely at the target 30fps - the only issues now cropping up in really packed encounters with hundreds of entities in play. Monolith really pushes its engine here and performance can dip but again, the developer still has plenty of time to address lingering issues. We'll also be looking at Halo Wars 2 in more depth soon, but initial impressions suggest that along with World of Tanks we're looking at a straight scaling of a 1080p30 Xbox One title to full, native 4K on the X at a similar performance level.
Overall, Xbox One X's Gamescom turn-out does what E3 didn't - it shows us a cross-section of titles from first and third party developers working on triple-A, double-A and indie titles, giving us an early look at how well game-makers across the board are getting to grips with the new hardware. We're told by Monolith that working with X is basically the same as developing for the base model, albeit with a far higher level of processing power to work with. The simplicity of development likely explains the consistency in results we saw across titles regardless of the source material. The scaling here is essentially in line with Microsoft's messaging, not to mention its internal early hardware benchmarks.
And it's that consistency in results - from the games we've seen thus far, at least - that is heartening. With every new PlayStation 4 Pro game that comes along, there's a sense of the unknown about what enhancements are actually going to manifest, and the extent to which an investment in a 4K screen actually pays off. Just like Sony, Microsoft has left the door open to developers to do what they want with the hardware, but certainly based on the titles we've seen so far, the delineation between the two Xbox models looks far more clear cut - Xbox One X is the console for your 4K screen, and anything else in addition to that (like Tomb Raider's multiple rendering modes) is a bonus. It's an impressive early showing then, and with over 100 games set for X enhancements, the chances are we're going to be kept really busy from November 7th onwards.
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