Three months shy of its second birthday, Electronic Arts surprised gamers with news of an Xbox One X enhanced upgrade for Battlefield 1 earlier this week, the full 5.8GB patch arriving the following day. Patch notes from the developer only mention support for "full 4K resolution" - an upgrade that is by and large delivered, though there is a sting in the tail: at the time of writing, the game's signature multiplayer mode isn't working quite the way it should be.
Quite why BF1 is getting the upgrade treatment at all is something of a mystery, bearing in mind its vintage. Perhaps DICE is gearing up for Battlefield 5 support later this year by using its predecessor for proof of concept work, but regardless, the options open to the developer with this one are mouthwatering. With PlayStation 4 Pro support, the lack of RAM and memory bandwidth saw DICE pursue a checkerboard resolution bump only - but with Xbox One X's more lavish spec, the door is open to incorporating some of the PC's more lavish features - and veering closer to PC's ultra preset would be a huge win for the console.
Stacking up the console BF1 experience against the fully enabled PC game, it's clear that there's much that could be added: improved textures, more detailed terrain rendering and more GPU-accelerated particles just for starters. As things stand, however, the X patch delivers a resolution bump and little more. And so, by extension, X's visual feature set is a match for the PlayStation 4 Pro upgrade. In common with Pro, DICE employs dynamic resolution scaling, ramping up to the full 4K promised by the patch notes but also dropping from the target under load, where resolution can dip to 3456x1944 in more intense scenes (a 90 per cent resolution scaling on both axis) while one measurement saw the scaler drop further to 3360x1890 - the lowest resolution we saw during a 64-player conquest mode skirmish. Temporal anti-aliasing softens the scene anyway, making resolution transitions virtually impossible to notice, and the overall presentation impresses on a 4K screen throughout.
Similar to other Frostbite titles, the scaling compared to PlayStation 4 Pro is impressive. In matching scenes, a native 4K resolution on X goes against 2816x1584 in the same spot on Pro. In another paired gameplay scene that pushes the renderer harder, Pro's 2560x1440 gets an equivalent 3456x1944 on Microsoft's enhanced console. That's a 82 per cent increase for Xbox One - not trivial given the relative increase in GPU power next to Sony's hardware. In the most complex scene we could match up on both machines, during the tank drive in the Steel on Steel mission, it's 3456x1944 on X, next to 2304x1296 on Pro - a 2.25x increase in pixel count favouring Xbox One X.
We know from DICE's technical presentations that the Pro version is using checkerboard rendering, and bearing in mind the relative technical specs offered by the X, it stands to reason that the same technology is in place for the Microsoft console too. And indeed, checkerboard-like stippling is present on extreme screenshot close-ups. However, curiously, the exact same artefact is also present on the PC version, where the implementation of checkerboarding would be extremely unlikely, suggesting that the stippling is more likely the result of some other part of the post-processing pipeline. By extension, that may also explain its presence in the early PC build of Anthem we saw a little while ago.
Regardless, the end result is that Xbox One X gets a cleaner, sharper image compared to Pro, but that's really where the differences end. Microsoft's machine renders terrain and objects at the same distance, while the top-tier PC experience at ultra HD still represents a significant upgrade for those willing to invest in higher end graphics card. Screen-space reflections, superior tessellation, improved texture filtering and pushed out draw distances certainly make a big difference, and bearing in mind the X's memory bandwidth and RAM improvements over Pro, it's a shame that a 1080p quality mode with PC's higher-end features couldn't be added to the mix.
What of performance? There are frame-rate improvements elsewhere in the package - notably the campaign mode - though this is marred somewhat by what looks like a severe bug that's been introduced in the new patch. The good news is that the resolution bump doesn't impact performance - we're still looking mostly at a locked 60 frames per second throughout the campaign with only occasional drops to the mid-50s. Multiplayer - particularly in the CPU-taxing 64-player maps - also shows a big advantage for X users, with anything up to a 13fps improvement in matching scenes. Accurately measuring performance in multiplayer is difficult, and we did it by running Xbox One X and S consoles simultaneously in the same server with players in the same squad trailing each other. Side-by-side, the enhanced console's advantage is undeniable - that's a great turnout for X owners, where it does mean more visual feedback, lower latency and smoother gameplay. It's a clear gameplay advantage that X users will enjoy over owners of the standard Xbox.
Dipping into multiplayer also allows us to test a bug report submitted by many users - that performance is impacted heavily when the player is in an Xbox Live party. At the time of writing, the quality impact to the experience is definitely a real issue. Both S and X users are hit hard, and not only does frame-rate take a hefty hit on both systems but the consistency of the experience is also impacted dramatically. Frame-rate drops are significant - by around 10fps on Xbox One X - but the real story here is the intrusive stutter. It's present on both consoles but definitely worse on Xbox One S, where the biggest frame-time spike weighed in at a remarkable 133ms - eight frames.
The overall choppiness of the action is clear to see and there are reports that using voice chat while in the party hits the experience even harder. The bottom line though is that it is an Xbox Live party issue whether you're on your own in that party or with other players. The route back to a much smoother experience is pretty straightforward: leave the party via the dash and performance instantly improves, immediately returning the game back to how it should be. You can still remain in a squad with your friends but this does mean that you can't talk to your teammates. It's workable but it's hardly an ideal state of affairs, and we really do hope that fixing this is high on DICE's priorities given how important multiplayer is to the Battlefield experience.
From every other angle though, the Xbox One X patch matches expectations with its gorgeous 4K rendering, even if enhancements beyond resolution are scarce. With that said, for anyone wanting to see the sharpest results from a console, this is the best way to play Battlefield 1 and it'll be fascinating to see how much of the implementation here makes its way into this year's sequel. Fingers are crossed that the game will gets its console debut soon - possibly at this year's Gamescom?