It may have taken some time, but virtually every major franchise has eventually transitioned successfully to at least one of the enhanced consoles - but the lack of a decent Batman: Arkham experience for the 4K consoles is disappointing. The superb Arkham Knight never received any kind of upgrade for PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, while the Return to Arkham patch for Sony's super-charged PS4 ranks as one of the most disappointing upgrades we've witnessed - until now. Somehow, despite having access to a significantly more powerful hardware spec, the recently released X upgrade for the controversial remaster manages to be even more of a let-down. In fact, it's easily the worst 'enhanced patch' we've seen on Xbox One X.
There's a lot to cover here, but let's start with the first of the two games in the collection: Arkham Asylum. To recap, this remaster transplanted the original Unreal Engine 3 experience to the more modern UE4, weaving in new visual features. Lighting, reflections, particle effects, textures, and even character faces were redone from scratch, and while the reaction to some of these changes was mixed, it's hardly a lacklustre effort. Developer Virtuos could have ported the original game as-is to PS4 and Xbox One - and maybe it should have, by keeping it simple and only remastering the dodgy video sequences and low res textures, while ramping up resolution to 1080p. But Virtuos instead took the hard road with more involved changes - and that deserves some respect.
In common with the PS4 Pro upgrade, the X patch shows none of this ambition. The principal design objective of the enhanced consoles is to deliver smoother, higher resolution experiences for ultra HD displays. However, the fact is that both Arkham titles only target 1080p on Xbox One X - with a surprise, and somewhat unwelcome twist. Curiously, dynamic scaling on the horizontal axis is retained from the base consoles, most notably in Arkham City. Arkham Asylum sticks closer to its maximum 1920x1080 due to its relative simplicity. It still potentially allows for scaling by small margins where necessary, but seemingly this is rare to catch based on our tests. The good news is that this is an improvement over the base Xbox One's lower bound of 1024x1080, but it's still some way short of the 4x resolution boost the Xbox One X was architected to deliver. Arguably, X is presenting what the base machine should have delivered in the first place.
Also curious is that the DNA of the base Xbox One version still remains strong in this enhanced release. In terms of textures, shadows and effects, the X version takes the regular Xbox One's visual settings, and presents it all at a higher resolution with no other enhancements. In fact, shadows retain the same low-res, blurry preset as before, which was dialled back in comparison to both PlayStation 4 consoles. The result? A regular PS4 pushes better quality shadows than Xbox One X.
So where has the GPU power gone? A 60fps target would be fantastic but instead the developer decides to target 45fps instead. The problem here, of course, is that 45 unique frames generated per second does not divide equally into the 60 refreshes of a standard display, meaning that the game presents with a constant judder. It's a baffling state of affairs for sure, but possibly worth checking out if you have a FreeSync screen - there's no tearing in this one (which presents challenges for Xbox's adaptive sync implementation) so it could work out pretty well. For everyone else though, 45fps isn't the best way to display the game and it's telling that even with a DRS implementation targeting a max 1080p, there are still drops from the performance target, some of which may well be related to background data streaming.
Things are different for Return to Arkham's second entry, Batman: Arkham City, but this upgrade falters in other areas. First of all, resolution scaling on Xbox One X is far more aggressive, kicking in with cutscenes featuring a lot of opponents, or while rendering expansive city views. Our lowest count here is 1408x1080: 73 per cent of the target full HD resolution. However, the surprise here is that in some scenes, the DRS results are actually higher on PS4 Pro. So, for example, a pixel-count result of 1536x1080 on Sony's enhanced PS4 delivers the same 1408x1080 number on Xbox One X in the exact same frame of a cut-scene. Fluctuations between the two in terms of range are likely, and both can hit 1920x1080 at times - but once again, it shows Microsoft's machine failing to match expectations.
Additionally, just like Arkham Asylum, the visual feature set remain a match for the base Xbox One version - just rendered at a higher resolution. This means that once again, the shadow quality is a match for the standard machine, and by extension this means that the effect is of a lower quality than the PlayStation versions.
Thankfully though, performance is improved. In this remaster, you do get a 30fps cap, in line with every other platform bar PC (Pro's unlocked frame-rate at launch was patched). The drops to 20fps found on the base consoles are gone, so there is an improved consistency to performance here, but the situation still isn't quite right. While frame-rates are locked to 30fps on X, the game is subject to pockets of irregular frame-pacing. Frame-times can flip between 16, 33 and 50ms as opposed to the locked 33ms we'd wanted to see. Clearly, performance still needs some work on both Arkham titles in this collection, albeit for different reasons.
The bottom line is that the Arkham Asylum and Arkham City remasters need more care and attention. The support for enhanced consoles is among the most disappointing we've seen, and X in particular has some quirks that even make it worse than already poor showing on PS4 Pro. The 45fps cap in the first game and the more aggressive sub-1080p drops in the second are a real shame. Combined with the pruned back visual settings ported over from the base console, it means that Xbox One X only comes in with a second-best experience to PS4 Pro.
Meanwhile, returning to the original PC versions and running them at 4K gives us an idea of an alternative approach Warner Bros could take in setting this situation right. In theory, the Xbox One back-compat team could produce X-enhanced versions of Rocksteady's original work, using the Xbox 360 code as a base instead. The original 720p rendering resolution on the last-gen titles would translate to native 4K on X, and the occasional performance issues and tearing should be entirely cleared up. From Mirror's Edge to Gears of War, the back-compat team have proven that UE3 titles can transition well to X hardware already. Revisiting the PC versions at ultra HD resolution demonstrates that despite some of the art looking a touch muddy on ultra HD displays, the games still manage to hold up and could provide a worthy alternative to Virtuos' disappointing results on Xbox One X.