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Next-gen before their time

The games that pushed Xbox 360 and PS3 to their limits - and could look spectacular on the new wave of consoles.

Next week sees the release of The Last of Us Remastered - a 1080p60 PS4 conversion of the PlayStation 3 classic, liberated from the technological confines of its original host hardware. We're currently working on two articles - one from an author who didn't play the original, along with another who did, providing the PS3 comparison. But the work got us thinking about the nature of the remastering process, the games we've already seen converted, and other last-gen titles where the ambitions of the developer outstripped the capabilities of the ageing hardware.

In many of the games outlined here, these games need to be put into the context of their times. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 enjoyed long leases of life that easily out-paced their predecessors - but developers and publishers had little idea of just how long these consoles would last.

Assuming a standard five-year cycle, the Xbox 360 would have been replaced in 2011, with the PS3 following a year later (though it is unlikely that Sony would have given its rival another year's head-start). Developers were put into an awkward position - by financial necessity, their games needed to run on existing hardware, but they also needed to be scalable, to produce stunning results on much more advanced console technology just in case Microsoft and Sony dropped their next-gen bombs midway through a game's multi-year development.

The end result is a considerable range of games that acquitted themselves well enough on older hardware, but came up short to varying degrees in the technological arena. In multi-platform projects, we could only look to the PC versions in order to get some idea of the way these games were truly meant to be seen - a state of affairs perhaps best summed up by our first title that truly was next-gen before its time.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Last of Us Combat/Action Frame-Rate Tests
The Last of Us is coming to PlayStation 4, and based on this performance analysis of the PS3 version, the promise of a locked 1080p60 is enticing in its own right. As great as it was, the game on PS3 struggled to maintain its 30fps target update. We're very curious to see just how enhanced the rest of the game is.

Battlefield 3 (DICE)

Arguably the very first AAA title designed with cross-gen in mind, DICE made a series of highly educated guesses on the future of console technology that stood the studio in good stead when it came to creating the sequel - arguably the most technologically advanced multi-platform game in the PS4/Xbox One launch line-up. Some of these guesses were no-brainers: DICE transitioned its entire rendering pipeline to DirectX 11, the graphics API that would undoubtedly be a core component of Microsoft's next-gen platform. The studio also explored GPGPU - the process of moving work more traditionally suited to the CPU across to the graphics hardware.

The engine was also designed to scale over as many processing cores as available. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 designs encouraged development in a many-core environment, but DICE made it a bedrock of its PC efforts too - a decision that would pay off when it was eventually revealed that both Microsoft and Sony had settled upon an eight-core cluster of low-power AMD processors.

The end result was a game that worked well enough on the last-gen consoles, but was clearly visually compromised. It was the PC version that truly excelled, offering us our first glimpse of what the Battlefield experience on next-gen console could look like. There's little chance of an HD remake of course - porting across the campaign would be singularly useless while select BF3 maps have already made their way across to Battlefield 4 via the Second Assault map pack.

Cover image for YouTube videoBattlefield 3 Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 Frame-Rate Tests
DICE cuts its next-gen teeth on Battlefield 3, shaping the core experience and technology that would launch with the PS4 and Xbox One in the sequel. Xbox 360 and PS3 worked well enough, but simply weren't the same game - especially so in multiplayer.

The Crysis Trilogy (Crytek)

Post-Crysis, Crytek decided to port its advanced CryEngine technology across to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and make the move from PC exclusive developer to multi-platform powerhouse. From the very earliest tech demos, the engine was described as 'next-gen ready'. However, at that point, the developer would not have been privy to the information required to make that determination, but like DICE, it would have been acutely aware of the trajectory of Microsoft's PC work and only a fool would have bet against Microsoft incorporating those innovations into its next-gen console.

However, the initial release of Crysis 2 demonstrated a company concentrating more on the present than on the future. It was a colossal undertaking to get CryEngine working on Xbox 360 and PS3, but somehow the developer managed - albeit with some troublesome impacts to frame-rate. The end result was a visually stunning game - still one of the most beautiful titles available on last-gen - but PC owners were left dismayed by a game with only limited advantages over its console brethren, and it took enhanced textures and a DirectX 11 patch to placate them. Crytek denied that the design of Crysis 2 was in part determined by console limitations, proving it by porting the original, more open Crysis across to CE3 and releasing it for digital distribution on Xbox 360 and PS3 - the result was another strong effort, but again handicapped by frequently poor frame-rates.

The last game in the trilogy - Crysis 3 - saw Crytek return to a more forward-looking agenda. DirectX 11 became the standard, PC returned to its lead platform status, and the engine became more multi-core aware in preparation for the next-gen era in gaming. It's also the most scalable Crysis to date - it'll run on Intel integrated graphics on its lowest settings, but even the 11.5 teraflop Radeon R9 295X2 cannot tame it at 4K resolution. Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 struggled to contain the game - frame-rate issues felt even more pronounced than previous Crysis titles and overall image quality was reduced even from the PC's lowest settings.

Of course, Crysis never came to next-gen consoles and there's no indication that a remastered trilogy will hit Xbox One and PlayStation 4 any time soon. That's a shame. Remarkably, all of these titles still hold up in the modern era and based on the stunning visuals in Ryse, there's clearly an even more advanced CryEngine out there that could make this classic trilogy look even better.

Can it run Crysis? We had plenty of doubts that CryEngine 3 could bring the original Crysis experience to the last-gen consoles, but Crytek proved us wrong. The conversions were generally sound, but in common with the other games in the series, performance could suffer.

Additional analysis:

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)

The first of the high-profile remasters, Tomb Raider, particularly on PS4, is one of the most visually impressive games available on current-generation consoles - and an excellent example of a scalable engine. It's a game that was almost certainly designed with one eye towards the arrival of next-gen consoles, with a lengthy spell in development kicking off in 2008 - about the same time that Mark Cerny made his pitch to spearhead development of the PlayStation 4.

This may explain in part just how much of a technological leap the PC version was compared to its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 counterparts - artwork was considerably enhanced, effects precision sky-rocketed, tessellation and super-sampling options were included and AMD's showcase TressFX hair animation technology was added. Such a rich range of additions would not have been developed for the PC version alone, where Tomb Raider's potential sales would have been minimal in relation to the console versions.

Crystal Dynamics developed a cross-gen engine designed very much with the future in mind - in effect, the original release was the proving ground for technologies that would (or would not, in the case of elements like tessellation) roll out in Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition the year after, and the foundations are in place for the developer to build upon in its upcoming sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Cover image for YouTube videoTomb Raider Xbox 360/PS3 Gameplay Frame-Rate Tests
Tomb Raider scaled well across a range of hardware - it's even playable on the Surface Pro tablet - but even on the more modest settings on console, it could stutter at 22fps. PS4 improved matters radically with a 60fps target, but Xbox One did see dips under its 30fps cap.

Additional analysis:

Gran Turismo 6 (Polyphony Digital)

Polyphony Digital's level of technological ambition can't be faulted - the sheer size and scale of Gran Turismo 6 is simply remarkable. Quite apart from the superb physics and simulation model, the implementation of aspects like tessellation (though quite where it is utilised isn't readily apparent) and real-time lighting are areas where not even Forza Motorsport 5 on Xbox One dared to tread. Similarly, while corners were cut, it did attempt to bring 1080p60 gameplay to the racing genre - something of a rarity on the last-gen consoles.

Trade-offs were necessary - and performance paid the price. Each of the three Gran Turismo titles on PlayStation 3 failed to match the consistency in frame-rate found on the PS2 and even PSP titles, the end result being a pristine-looking game marred by judder and screen-tear. To its credit, Polyphony pushed boundaries on PlayStation 3, but there was always the sense that the developer brick-walled technologically. With that in mind, the notion of a Gran Turismo title on PlayStation 4 is mouthwatering.

Of course, the chances of a GT6 remaster are slight to non-existent. Kazunori Yamauchi's emphasis is on a full-blooded Gran Turismo 7, which is probably for the best. The recent revelation that the standard cars (models that hail back to the PS2 era) would be in the game was met with surprise from some, but we strongly suspect that most of the premium work carried out for GT5 and its sequel will also transition across to the series' PS4 debut quite nicely. The modelling detail is there from the outset, and tessellation could smooth over any issues at close distances - it's more the track detail levels that need additional work, and there's still plenty of overhead for the team to inject its pioneering technological spirit into a genuinely forward-looking game.

Cover image for YouTube videoGran Turismo 6 720p vs. 1080p Frame-Rate Tests
Gran Turismo 5 and its sequel pushed the PlayStation 3 hard - to the point where the series' signature 60fps performance was compromised, even when playing at the less taxing native 720p.

Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar North)

Forward-looking in so many ways, but obviously constricted in others, Grand Theft Auto 5 is a game that clearly benefits from the remastering treatment. Quite apart from addressing the graphical shortfalls we saw - such as the lack of high quality textures and filtering problems on Xbox 360 - the teaser trailer promises so much more. First of all, there's the clear deployment of higher quality artwork to complement the 1080p resolution, but moving beyond the basics we see Rockstar North looking to inject more life into its open world.

Barren arboreal areas now benefit from rich vegetation, complete with a range of wildlife not found in the original versions of the game. The cityscapes itself are packed with more NPCs, and a radical increase in vehicle count. Effects work - such as water simulation - is reworked, draw distance is higher, a bokeh depth of field effect is present while lighting appears to have been improved.

Inconsistent performance was another problem in the last-gen versions of GTA 5. This remains something of an unknown in terms of the new versions of the game, but the teaser - apparently captured from PlayStation 4 - looks remarkably consistent in comparison with its predecessor. Rockstar North's epic was the perfect full-stop for the last-gen console era and a phenomenal technological statement in its own right. The good news is that the revised edition looks like more than just a simple, higher resolution port. There's clear ambition here and we can't wait to see more.

Cover image for YouTube videoGrand Theft Auto 5/GTA 5 PS4 vs PS3 Trailer Comparison
The Grand Theft Auto 5 PS4 teaser compared to the PlayStation 3 version. It's a radical transformation.

Additional analysis:

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light (4A Games)

4A Games worked miracles in getting Metro 2033 running on Xbox 360, then proved it could get the best out of both last-gen consoles with adept releases of Metro Last Light - but 4A's principle strengths are in the PC arena, and it's on computer that both of these titles are seen at their best with a dazzling wealth of improvements to visual fidelity, including much-improved lighting, far superior texture quality, depth of field, tessellation and massively improved physics, with more prolific cloth simulation. Last Light ups the ante still further with additional effects such as parallax occlusion mapping, but both titles are notorious for stressing PC hardware with all settings ramped up to the max. We went back to the last-gen console versions recently to prepare for the upcoming Redux remasters and found that the technical achievement remains undiminished, but the game looks coarse, rough - not a patch on the full-fat experience.

4A didn't design the Metro games with next-gen console in mind - PC is the lead platform, first and foremost - but what's clear is that the core hardware design of both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One favours the team as it gears up to release its Metro Redux editions next month. PC-centric hardware combined with the ability to accommodate the kind of low-level console optimisation that 4A excels at has led to the studio handing in 60fps conversions of the PC versions. Not only that, but the team has also sought to improve on the PC titles, rolling back visual enhancements and optimisations to the original target platform.

And we can confirm that the Redux versions really do run at 60fps too, something we can attest to first-hand having played the E3 build of the PS4 versions of both 2033 and Last Light. This isn't a "targeted" 60fps either, it's 60fps with v-sync that looked pretty much flawless when we saw it. If there are drops, they're hard to notice - the presentation looks consistent and stutter free. We'll have more on Metro Redux in the coming weeks - but if we're getting something along the lines of the PC experience backed by a range of visual enhancements and locked 60fps gameplay, we're potentially looking at something very special indeed...

Cover image for YouTube videoMetro Last Light: Xbox 360 vs. PS3 Frame-Rate Tests
Metro Last Light worked out fine on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but the promise of visuals that improve upon the PC visuals in combination with a locked 60fps should transform the experience.

Looking forward: the first party remaster flood

The Last of Us is just the beginning. Uncharted PlayStation 4 remasters are heavily hinted to be on the slate, while numerous rumours link Beyond: Two Souls with a PS4 treatment - where the enhancements will hopefully go beyond the superficial. Bearing in mind that PlayStation 4 has attracted an audience where a sizeable proportion of the userbase never owned a PS3, we wouldn't be surprised at all to see Sony Santa Monica's God of War titles make their way across to the new hardware either. But just how much more can be achieved with these titles? There are no PC versions to draw assets from, and these games worked so well because they were built entirely around the PS3 architecture - there is no enhanced PC version from which to draw more modern rendering features - the secret of Tomb Raider Definitive Edition's success.

The Last of Us Remastered will be an interesting test case - an initial raft of leaked screenshots reveal a conversion that looks like a remaster in its purest sense - a spruced up, higher resolution version of a game you may have already played. Can these remasters justify the price-point, or should they be cheaper - as is the case with Metro Redux. There we see two complete remasters for less than £30.

Meanwhile, as Sony sits upon an embarrassment of riches, Microsoft's approach to remastering - with its more limited range of potential candidates - is interesting. 343 Industries has gone for the nuclear option - porting across every Master Chief-themed Halo title onto Xbox One in one full-priced release. What's interesting here is just how little we've seen of the overall package and the potential for remastering each title offers. In particular, we're especially interested to see the Halo 4 conversion. Built at the tail-end of the Xbox 360's life-cycle, it's similar to The Last of Us in that the sheer quality of the artwork and the engine could give us something akin to a 'pseudo-next-gen' experience - and existing 1080p bullshots of the campaign may suggest that better quality artwork is available that the Master Chief collection could draw upon. 343 has made no promises, but an enhanced Halo 4 could be the icing on the cake in what is already a highly anticipated Xbox One release.