Set to be the definitive console version of Dark Souls 2, Scholar of the Last Sin gets a worthwhile debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In line with last-gen releases of this Scholar edition, each bundles in all DLC to date, adding brand new characters and tangents to its plot, with a slew of gameplay tweaks. Meanwhile, upgrades like more complex enemy layouts, improved lighting and superior effects adorn the current-gen releases - though the elusive Xbox One version comes with baggage not seen on PS4.
As a starting point, both consoles get the basics right. There are no drawbacks on the resolution front: this is a true 1920x1080 game on PS4, and a pixel count reveals it's the very same situation on Xbox One, with both backed by FXAA anti-aliasing. It's an interesting result given the console's trend of adopting lower native resolutions than PS4 to secure a smooth frame-rate, or to achieve parity in graphical features. However, Dark Souls 2's lock at 1080p plants it in the upper echelons of multi-format releases so far, at least in terms of visuals.
From a core graphical standpoint, both platforms are also entirely on par. We get a 13GB install on PS4 here, while Xbox One demands a slimmer 12.1GB chunk of HDD space, but the end turnout is the same. Each frame pushed by either console reveals the new lighting model is in play (boosting contrast, while adding light properties to alpha effects) alongside high-quality shadows, while texture assets are matched for quality across the board.
Even the smaller details such as the new bokeh depth of field effect, per-object motion blur and anisotropic filtering make the cut on both systems. Neither console misses out, so our comparison shots below are often mirror images when compared side-by-side. For the record, no day one update is available as of this writing, so our tests run on the game's vanilla build 1.00, while online calibrations are set to 2.01. [UPDATE 2/4/15 2:40pm: Patch 1.01 has dropped for Xbox One - and we see no performance improvements. We'll check PS4 once the update appears there, but we suspect it's probably more about bug-fixing than optimisation.]
|Dark Souls 2 1080p60/V-Sync Gameplay
|Dropped Frames (from 20,480 total)
In summary, both PS4 and Xbox One get the premium treatment in terms of visual design. Drangleic stands out in the Souls series for bringing a sparser, broader world design; the full-HD output in this case allowing distant details in Majula and Heide's Tower of Flame to resolve sharply. The only downside is that level of detail (LOD) scaling still pervades areas such as Majula, causing visible pop-in for shadow maps and minor objects. It's a small gripe though, and the only blemish to its presentation to carry over from last-gen releases.
Gameplay performance takes a different turn, and in frame-rate metrics we see a rift forming between PS4 and Xbox One. Many of the game's once barren spaces are now occupied by new enemies, such as dormant wyverns, or even clusters of knights ratcheting up to 13 or more. This boosted enemy count evidently fulfills an ambition for the game that isn't possible on PS3 and Xbox 360, but it also takes a toll on both PS4 and Xbox One to differing degrees.
Xbox One pays a persistent price for matching the PS4's visual standard. Both formats target 60fps and engage v-sync at all times, but Microsoft's platform suffers the greater drops between the two in each scene of our frame-rate analysis. The Forest of Fallen Giants area is a good example, where a barrage of enemies causes a read-out of between 40-50fps on Xbox One, while PS4 operates within the 50-60fps range. Even while uncontested beneath the giant, arching trees of Things Betwixt, a regular margin of 10fps exists between the two - PS4 operating at a near perfect 60fps, while Xbox stutters along at 50fps.
Unfortunately this has the knock-on effect of making combat sluggish on Xbox One. In one example, an encounter with The Last Giant boss gives us our lowest drop, a record tumble to 36fps cued by a batch of floating souls. The PS4 goes entirely unruffled by the effect here, and it's fair to say the smoother controller response makes it easier to tackle a lingering knight after this boss battle's finished. Sony's machine does not produce a perfect 60fps of course, but it is a consistently better performer - and in a game that demands pinpoint timing for rolls and ripostes, the smoother frame-rate can make a difference.
From Software has described the Dark Souls 2 engine in terms of its viability for this generation, but it's now clear that PS4 hands in results closest to the developer's intention. Within the console bracket, it's no doubt the best version to date, while Xbox One claims second place in the running owing to its less stable frame-rate. By bullishly matching Sony's platform point-for-point across all graphical settings, Xbox One places Dark Souls 2's visual presentation above its playability to a certain extent. However, compared to the 20-30fps performance of last-gen releases it 's still a fulsome upgrade for owners of Microsoft's console.
All that remains is a question mark over Scholar of the First Sin's PC release, a DirectX 11 version that brings visual upgrades over the DX9 original. The value proposition is somewhat controversial given that it incurs an additional fee, especially for fans who already own the DLC and enjoy the benefits of patch 1.10. A defining point in the argument could well hinge on the extent of the API switch's performance differential and whether the graphical improvements go beyond those seen on PS4 and Xbox One - a subject we intend to cover very soon.