For many, this is the most crucial of the next generation cross-platform comparisons. The new Assassin's Creed is a big game, cross-gen in nature for sure, but apparently built with the new wave of machines at least partly in mind. Valhalla also represents a generational shift for the franchise as this is the first time a new series entry arrives on consoles with a 60fps target - on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X at least, delivered with varying levels of success. Ubisoft Montreal aims for complete platform parity between Sony and Microsoft's premium consoles, but the results when they do diverge are perhaps unexpected.
Anvil Next gets a revamp, but there is the sense that much of Valhalla's shift in aesthetic comes from the art side. In fairness, this can tap into the engine's strengths: a sizeable enough proportion of the rendering budget is spent on the volumetric clouds system, and there are some spectacular vista shots delivered in the new game. The inclusion of wintry terrain also sees the introduction of snow displacement, similar to what we've seen in the past in titles including Horizon Zero Dawn's Frozen Wilds expansion. Ultimately, the engine continues to provide the beautiful landscapes seen since the franchise shift that began with Assassin's Creed Origins, but hopefully the dense cityscapes of Unity can be revisited with the shift to next-gen. One bonus feature we're happy to see though: per-object motion blur arrives in Assassin's Creed for the first time.
First of all, before we tackle the Series X vs PS5 main event, let's talk about Xbox Series S. We'll be discussing a fair amount of Xbox issues in this piece, but the Series S rendition of Valhalla sits in a rather tricky position. Microsoft's marketing places Series S as a lower resolution Xbox that should otherwise mirror the Series X experience, but the key cutback here is a drop from 60fps down to 30fps, firmly pegging it with last-gen versions of the game. Not only that, dynamic resolution is rather elastic, operating from 1188p to around 1656p, often settling at 1296p - lower than Series X, and also delivering reductions in shadow resolution, alongside pulled in level of detail settings for trees and terrain. It's a perfectly serviceable game, but not quite as fully featured as users might hope. Series S can match up fairly well in resolution terms, but the cut in feature and frame-rate is disappointing.
Differences in game's visual make-up essentially disappear completely once we move onto PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, where Ubisoft aims for total platform parity and basically delivers that. After a range of tests, there's simply nothing to separate the two in terms of what the game is rendering: level of detail transitions in character quality, tessellation distance and trees and terrain are identical, while shadow resolution is similarly the same. We couldn't find any differences at all in fully matched scenarios and any variations that may have been reported may well be down to the time of day system, which sees lighting adjust dramatically according to the sun's position in the sky (or indeed its absence at night time).
Both of the premium next generation consoles also use a dynamic resolution scaling system. The lowest measured pixel count is 1440p (67 per cent of native 4K on either axis) while the maximum is 1728p (80 per cent native) and in almost all scenarios, measuring pixel counts in like-for-like scenes produces the same DRS result on both systems. We've spoken recently about how pixel counts don't really matter any more - but this observation relies to a certain extent on the use of modern temporal reconstruction techniques. What's in use here looks mostly unchanged from the tech that debuted in Origins back in 2017 - and it's starting to show its age, especially as the presentation is much heavier on challenging foliage and vegetation than its predecessors
So, similar to our first Series X vs PS5 platform comparison, we're looking at feature parity - but again, performance is where there is a difference. With Devil May Cry 5, Xbox Series X enjoyed a small lead in most rendering modes, falling short against PS5 in 120Hz gaming. With AC Valhalla, there's only one mode and 60fps is the target. While there are problems on both systems, Xbox Series X obviously fares worse. To put things into context, Valhalla targets 60 frames per second, but when the engine is under heavy load and can't render a new frame within the 16.7ms target, it'll present the new frame when it's good and ready, while your screen is updating. This causes screen tearing. Both systems can have issues here, especially in cutscenes, and sometimes in gameplay. However, the key takeaway is that PlayStation 5 is much closer to the 60fps target more of the time, while Xbox Series X can struggle. In fact, at its worst, we noted PS5 delivering a 15 per cent performance advantage over its Microsoft equivalent in identical scenarios. [UPDATE: The 15 per cent performance advantage mentioned here is averaged across a specific cross-section of play. As the graphs show, 'in the moment' differences can be as high as 25 per cent.]
As more games target 60fps in the cross-gen period and don't quite sustain the target, so we're seeing a resurgence in games with screen-tearing - something that was all but gone on last-gen systems. This isn't a welcome development to be honest, and that's why VRR - variable refresh rate - is such a boon. In terms of the experience on a standard 60Hz display, Series X is clearly worse off in performance terms. However, we tested Valhalla with VRR enabled on an LG CX display and the tearing is gone, and the presentation remains smooth: the console is fully in command of when the screen delivers a new frame and it's a game-changer, especially for this title. The omission of VRR on PlayStation 5 is a real disappointment, not just here in Valhalla, but also in other games like Dirt 5.
Beyond performance matters, it's pretty clear that Assassin's Creed Valhalla still needs a lot of work - especially on Xbox platforms. We encountered plenty of bugs playing this game: in addition to some weird performance bottlenecks on Series consoles, we also noted that camera motion doesn't update with a linear relationship to frame-rate during cutscenes, meaning some ugly looking stutter even with the engine actually running flat-out at 60fps (PS5 is fine here). Other bugs have included NPCs rotating on the spot, the first hit with the axe never registering and where Viking troops froze on the boat during the first raid, necessitating a restart.
Ultimately, Assassin's Creed Valhalla is in a very strange place at the moment - by and large, it works as a 60 frames per second experience on PlayStation 5, but with some intrusive tearing. Perhaps some tweaks to the dynamic resolution scaler are required - dropping lower than 1440p would be preferable to the tearing. Meanwhile, there are clear issues on the Xbox side that clearly need addressing: the frame-pacing on cutscenes along with the bizarre performance drops are disappointing. We'd also like to see a 60fps mode on Series S, even if this does incur a resolution penalty. The big triumph of the franchise shift to next-gen is the move to 60fps - to have that option removed on Series S doesn't quite live up to the system's ideals.
Of course, it goes without saying that we should be patient with game makers who've had to work with development environments and console hardware that are new to them, while dealing with unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic. The basic idea that a project as vast as Valhalla - which releases on so many platforms - was possible at all in these conditions is astonishing. But with that said, our hopes remain high that in the coming weeks, polish and performance issues will be addressed.
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