Activision impressed us with the brilliant Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 and with the new Crash Bandicoot 4 - It's About Time, it looks like a pattern is forming. The firm looks intent on mining its exhaustive IP, delivering remakes then moving onto brand new sequels. Based on the quality of this release, it's a strategy that may well play off - Crash Bandicoot 4 is a solid game and an authentic series entry, with numerous improvements and upgrades that pay off while respecting the original formula. The new release also makes use of Unreal Engine 4, offering numerous technical improvements over the recent remakes including a much higher frame-rate - at least if you're gaming on the right consoles.
Crash 4 perfectly captures the look and feel of an animated film - expressive character models stretch and squish in a cartoon style in both cinematics and gameplay, while gorgeous per-pixel motion blur accentuates every movement. The UE4 motion blur is one of my favorite things here - the shutter speed settings are just perfect. That said, you can disable this from the options menu if you're not so keen on the effect. The point is that the quality of the animation work is truly on point here, the visuals are first class and the overall package is excellent in presentational terms.
Background detail is ramped up across the board too with beautifully off-kilter models lending the game the exaggerated look you expect while still offering a lot of detail - and I mean a lot. It's still very much an on-rails experience, but that's perfectly fine and allows the developers to build some stunning looking worlds to explore. I especially appreciate the materials quality and lighting - it's a cartoon-like game for sure, but everything has that tangible feel you'd expect from a pre-rendered CGI film. To see it all play out in real-time in a fully interactive format is a real treat.
Other nice details include the gamut of UE4 features such a screen-space reflections - there's nothing new about this technique but the rail-guided nature of the camera system means you rarely see the limitations, meaning the visual hit is strong. Liquid surfaces also react to movement with ripples forming in your wake. More importantly, pretty much every visual effect is intact no matter where you play the game - and this is where we get into our first point of comparison. Resolution-wise, image quality in Crash 4 is interesting - it seems to target 1080p on all consoles except the base Xbox One which appears to operate at 900p instead.
The Xbox One X does at least receive a crisp 4K user interface, mind you, but the 3D rendering is of a lower resolution - in fact, even Microsoft's six teraflop machine occasionally uses dynamic resolution scaling to maintain frame-rate. Yes, this is indeed an X title that (very rarely) dips below 1080p for the sake of consistent 60fps performance. Thankfully, despite the somewhat lower pixel count, it's not a huge issue. Unreal's image treatment puts in the work here and the game winds up looking clean across all platforms. It's a little soft, true, but it has a very CG-like appearance that is attractive and isn't reliant on extreme pixel counts.
When putting the different versions side by side, however, some interesting things are revealed. Firstly, the PS4 version is effectively identical between Pro and base and the same is mostly true of Xbox One S vs X, save for the lower resolution. However, when comparing PS4 against Xbox One, you might start to notice a few minor differences: the shadows and ambient shadows differ between the two consoles. Shadows are less refined on Xbox in general and the contact shadows seem to be absent as well. Furthermore, there are small variances in texture quality as well - the PlayStation consoles fare better here. What this means is that these features present better on the standard PS4, even compared to Xbox One X. It would be nice to see the X version benefit from the full range of visual features - the horsepower is certainly there to deal with it, and it shouldn't be running with technical debt from the One S version.
All told, technical curiosities apart, there's not too much to split any of the console versions - until we start talking about performance. Crash 4 runs with an unlocked frame-rate, it targets 60fps, but achieving this with visuals of this quality is going to cause issues the lower down the console power ladder you go. Not surprisingly, Xbox One X fares best, effectively running at 60fps for the vast majority of the duration and feeling slick and responsive as a result. Whatever issues remain, will almost certainly be cleared up when played on an Xbox Series X - though we'd hope to see a patch with improved resolution at the very least.
Either way, Crash 4 plays best on Xbox One X for now. PS4 Pro comes in second place. It's nearly as solid as Xbox One X but I noted additional performance drops at certain stress points. I didn't really mind this too much: it mostly manifests as dips into the 50fps region when in cutscenes, for the most part, so it generally isn't intrusive to gameplay. Both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X offer an excellent experience with exactly the level of performance you'd want. PS4 Pro definitely isn't quite as refined as its Xbox counterpart but I'd happily play the game on either system: both of them are solid overall.
The real problems come in if you're playing on base machines, because neither system can handle this game at 60 frames per second. On PS4, it runs with the basic unlocked frame-rate. That means highly variable performance between 30 and 60fps. It hurts the experience for me - it presents with persistent judder and the whole experience is just too inconsistent. As an option, it would be fine, but I feel a 30fps cap should exist for users playing on the standard PlayStation 4. This would effectively solve the problem and deliver a game with the same level of performance as the N.Sane Trilogy.
The Xbox One S release, however, is downright strange. Basically, it seems to teeter back and forth between two performance profiles - in some sections, the frame-rate clamps down to 30fps with correct frame-pacing. It works well enough and I was happy to see it here as it's clear the original Xbox One could never run this at a full 60fps. Unfortunately, this level of consistency does not last. At other points, the frame-rate cap seems to disappear delivering unstable, uncapped performance that feels poor to play with an overall outlook that feels less optimal than the standard PS4. There's just no reason for the frame-rate to run without the 30fps cap so it's surprising to see it jump between the two profiles on display here.
What we're left with is a game that looks very similar across all consoles but plays very differently, and I can only recommend Xbox One X and PS4 Pro the way things stand right now. Perhaps this is not surprising when 1080p is the top-end for resolution - if the pixel-count is the same, the only real way to successfully execute this game across base and enhanced machines is with a clear 30/60fps divide, and the vanilla machines really need a consistent 30fps target rather than the unlocked or semi-unlocked update they ship with.
There are some nice gameplay additions worth mentioning, however, and these are implemented across the board. Crash 4 has two modes: classic and modern. The difference is in the life system. In retro mode, you have lives - run out of them and you'll need to restart the stage. In modern mode, however, you have infinite lives and always restart at the nearest checkpoint. Another nice quality of life feature is the 'enhanced shadows' option - basically, this places a small circular visualisation below Crash while jumping. The idea is to help people judge the z-distance between platforms, as this has always been a complaint some players levelled against the series. It's an interesting option to have: you can choose to play it classic-style or take advantage of this extra feature to improve readability in traversal.
Really though - you already know if you like Crash Bandicoot 4 if you've ever played a Crash game in the past. There's no major reinvention here - but what you are getting is a gorgeous, solid, but straightforward 3D platformer. It doesn't quite resonate with me in the same way that Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 did, but it's nice to see that these games are proving popular enough to revamp and bring to modern audiences and delivered with some exceptional technical polish in many areas. I like the game but the quality of the experience very much depends on the hardware running it: if you own a PS4 Professional or Xbox One X, you're good to go. Vanilla Xbox One or PS4 Amateur? Right now, I just can't recommend it.
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