Face-Off: Lords of the Fallen
Who is the best lord?
Beginning life as a PS3 and Xbox 360 project, Lords of the Fallen and its proprietary Fledge engine underwent a dramatic transformation during production, pushed forward onto the new wave of consoles. The team at Deck13 has delivered an advanced visual experience with a focus on high-quality volumetric lighting, GPU-accelerated physics and a swathe of Nvidia Gameworks-exclusive features - in fact, the results partially call to mind the impressive Elemental demo used to showcase Unreal Engine 4. There's no doubt the final result is often gorgeous but, unfortunately, these cutting-edge features come at a steep price, severely impacting game performance.
In what has become a bit of a standard announcement these days, the developers confirmed in September that Lords of the Fallen operates at 1080p on PlayStation 4 and 900p on Xbox One, and we can confirm that this is the case - not that the presentation is immediately obvious. In fact, first impressions actually suggest something below the suggested resolutions, with all the hallmarks of upscaling present on both consoles. The presentation is so murky, we actually had to fall back on good old-fashioned pixel-counting to absolutely confirm the resolution.
So what's going on? Well, Deck13 went a bit overboard with its implementation of chromatic aberration, to the point that the end results give the impression of a significantly lower resolution. We aren't huge fans of this type of filter, but it has its place - unfortunately, we can't help feel that an ancient monastery isn't the best venue for it. In Lords of the Fallen, the aberration is sometimes absurd to the point that it feels as if we were meant to don a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses.
Thankfully, the effect can be disabled on PC, but at the moment this requires users to disable post-processing effects across the board, eliminating other, more desirable effects in the process, including anti-aliasing. It's a shame the developers didn't provide an option to specifically disable chromatic aberration and leave the rest. Bearing in mind how much the game has changed via two patches since launch, hopefully they will consider adding this feature.
Moving on, the visual quality of the two console versions appears extremely similar, apart from a reduction in shadow quality and light glow on Xbox One. Shadow resolution is reduced significantly in comparison to the PS4 version, producing noticeable chunkiness in many scenes. As the game features an array of shadow-casting spot and box-lights, this difference leaves certain scenes looking decidedly inferior on Xbox One. The PC offers the best quality in this area - better-defined shadows and more of them. This manifests in the form of equipment shadows on character models: shields, pieces of cloth and more all present proper shadows on PC, while on console only the base character mesh minus accessories casts a shade.
Ambient occlusion is implemented across all three versions and is very similar, with reasonably good coverage in most situations. The solution isn't perfect, however, as we observed noticeable flicker around foliage across all platforms. On PC, Nvidia has created an official flag for enabling HBAO+ which completely eliminates this issue and provides improved contact shadows all around, but unfortunately it also seems to result in some noticeable flicker in certain sequences. If you wish to use HBAO+ it is recommended you disable in-game SSAO by lowering shadow quality to the high preset, which does not have any significant impact on the effect's resolution.
PC enhancements don't stop there, however. Deck13 has implemented the Apex particle module in order to deliver a more complex particle simulation for PC users. This module is based on CUDA and as such targets Nvidia hardware specifically. The in-house GPU particle system already built into Fledge is robust as it is, but the Apex module allows for more complex turbulence fields. The idea is sound and there are instances - such as the first boss battle - where we noted a genuine improvement over Deck13's internal solution. It's inconsistent, however, with other sequences such as the game's introduction seemingly lacking particles in comparison to the standard in-engine system. While the improved simulation has its benefits, it doesn't always seem to fit in artistically with the game's visual design. Thankfully, after the latest patch, it is now possible to disable Apex turbulence fields and utilise the game's internal solution, which is on par with the console version and better suited for AMD hardware in particular due to its heavily reliance on GPU compute.
Elsewhere, we see the inclusion of additional Apex modules allowing for more complex object destruction, for instance. The console set-up consists of swapping from a solid object to another consisting of individual pieces that collide within a simple box set-up. The PC's Apex destruction module sees objects constructed from individual pieces at all times and, as a result, behave more realistically as they are destroyed. It's a subtle difference most of the time but when exposed to additional forces, such as wind or explosions, the reaction is more realistic as pieces tumble convincingly across the scene. All versions of the game make use of excellent cloth physics, with nearly every character model utilising large swathes of flowing cloth and fur that moves realistically along with the animation.
Perhaps the most impressive visual aspect of Lords of the Fallen is its use of volumetric lighting. Many scenes utilise expansive shafts of light. This isn't a typical screen-space effect that vanishes when not looking directly at a light source, but rather a more expensive ray-marching approach. In order to minimise the performance impact, however, a lower rendering resolution is used along with interleaved sampling to reduce sample count per fragment. The results are impressive on all three platforms but, once again, it appears that a higher resolution implementation is used on PC, resulting in slightly sharper volumetric shafts. In practice, however, the difference is quite subtle.
Detail-wise, the game is completely identical between console versions, but the PC version allows for an increase in texture and scenery detail. Texture resolution across the board is reduced in quality on both consoles, and this is surprising considering the amount of memory available. Less of a shock is the reduction in scene complexity where building facades, statues and other structures all appear simplified next to their PC counterparts. It's clear that all of these cutbacks on consoles were necessary, however, as evidenced by the game's biggest problem: performance.
When the developers set out to create a game in the vein of Dark Souls they probably didn't set out to use Blighttown as a model for performance. However, in many ways that's what it feels like here. Lords of the Fallen is a good-looking game on all platforms but its performance on console very nearly spoils the experience.
Regardless of what's happening on-screen, there is a sense that the game is simply unable to hold a consistent 30fps update. Dips are frequent, complemented by noticeable screen-tear, particularly on PlayStation 4. Looking at the frame-time graphs for each game reveals an unstable level of performance for the majority of the duration. Interestingly, torn frames are generally limited to the upper portion of the screen on Xbox One where the framebuffer waits to flip until the next frame if the resulting tear would appear too central on the screen. What you gain in image integrity you lose in the form of even less stable overall performance, resulting in increased judder compared to the PS4 version.
Curiously, on the PS4 version there's an observable, constant tearing occurring along the top five per cent of the image. We've chosen to omit these frames from our performance analysis video in order to produce something that was more readable (also, it's not obtrusive during gameplay), but regardless, torn frames routinely appear throughout the image and prove quite distracting. As the framebuffer is flipped at any point, the average frame-rate is ever so slightly higher on PS4 - but ultimately neither version feels fluid or smooth at all, often recalling the poor performance we were accustomed to on challenging PS3 and 360 titles that arrived at the tail end of the last generation.
It could have been worse though. The initial patch on PS4 is over 4GB in size, and before we installed it our initial experiences were even less impressive. If the unpatched downloadable version of the game represents the retail disc release, we have yet another unoptimised gold master on our hands. The frame-rate is lower and screen-tear is even more evident in this state. The patch improves matters, but even with it in place the experience as it stands now is still disappointing.
It's a different story on the PC where after a brace of patches the game runs extremely well on our GTX 780/i5 3570K combo. As it stands we're able to hit a mostly steady 60fps with the advanced particle simulation enabled at 1080p. We did encounter a series of minor hitches, however, which persist at various points for reasons unknown - something the game did not suffer from prior to the latest patches. Increasing the resolution does result in a noticeable loss of performance with 1440p regularly producing frame-rates under 60fps. Impressively, we noted extremely efficient CPU scaling across multiple cores. Fledge appears to be a very PC-friendly engine indeed.
Reading over the engine documentation available suggests that there is a lot of untapped potential here. In addition to the advanced rendering features included in Lords of the Fallen, the Fledge engine also offers a full PBR (physically based rendering) render path and an advanced hair and foliage simulation - neither of which made their way into the game. The engine seems promising - especially on PC - but as it stands the poor performance on console is a huge hurdle the team must overcome.
Lords of the Fallen - the Digital Foundry verdict
Looking at the two console versions it's rather difficult to give a solid recommendation here as neither version performs well. Image quality is certainly superior on PS4 and, while performance is quite similar, screen tear is more noticeable. On the other hand, the Xbox One version suffers from more severe judder and its frame-rate dips even lower than the sub-optimal PS4 version. Both versions are playable but neither feels enjoyable as a result of the low frame-rate and inconsistent performance. We'd give the nod to the PS 4 version if pressed, but we can't help feel this is not the way the game should be played.
That particular honour goes to the PC version of Lords of the Fallen. It's a demanding title, but even middling hardware should be able to achieve a more stable 30fps than the consoles - and without the intrusive tearing. It's just a shame that the finished product ended up shipping with so many performance problems as the game itself is actually rather well made and definitely worth playing. For now, we can only hope that Deck13 concentrates on optimising console performance.
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